Skip to main content

Chinese dissident Wang Bingzhang is seen in Monterey Park in this February 6, 1998 file photo.SAM MIRCOVICH/Reuters

As the Trudeau government prepares an aggressive new trade and diplomatic agenda with China, supporters of a democracy activist sentenced to a lifetime of solitary confinement in a Chinese jail say it's time Ottawa demands his freedom.

In 2003, China imprisoned democracy activist Wang Bingzhang on espionage and terrorism charges after a one-day trial in which he was not allowed to produce evidence or question testimony against him.

Now, those who want him free hope a thawing in the relationship between Beijing and Ottawa can provide an opening to address his case, particularly as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to visit China later this year.

For Beijing to reconsider its stance on Mr. Wang "would require that Mr. Trudeau utter my father's name with his Chinese counterpart on his upcoming trip. Anything short of that I don't think would bring about his release," said the jailed activist's daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, a law student at McGill University.

The new pressure on Mr. Wang's case underscores the balance Mr. Trudeau is being pushed to strike with China. Business leaders are eager for the new government to smooth the way for more China trade after the frictions that emerged under Stephen Harper, who first pledged not to sell out principles for dollars, before adopting a more commercially minded approach later in his tenure.

At the same time, Mr. Trudeau has inherited several contentious consular files in Asia. China has indicted Canadian, Kevin Garratt, on espionage charges, and protestations from Mr. Harper did not secure his release. North Korea, meanwhile, has sentenced Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim to a lifetime of hard labour.

Mr. Trudeau's government has indicated an eagerness to pursue a business-oriented agenda with China, including talks toward a free-trade agreement that China has long wanted.

It's not clear how willing the new government will be to pressure China on human rights when doing so stands to incite Beijing's anger. Other countries, including the U.K., have recently been accused of abandoning such advocacy in the name of commerce.

China has, however, shown a recent willingness to address old grievances with Canada. Last week, a Chinese court commuted the life sentence for Huseyin Celil, a Canadian jailed on terrorism charges, to a fixed-term sentence of roughly two decades. Mr. Celil's imprisonment has been a major irritant between Ottawa and Beijing.

Reducing his sentence "does indicate that China is maybe seeking to make small gestures," said Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal attorney-general and justice minister who recently stepped down from politics.

"But it's only a very modest and, standing on its own, insufficient démarche on China's part."

Mr. Cotler acts as counsel to Mr. Wang and recently formed the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal. He will this week hold inaugural meetings for an all-party caucus on human rights, and Mr. Wang's case will be among the first Mr. Cotler expects MPs to take up.

Mr. Cotler also met recently with Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, and urged the new government to leverage historic goodwill between the Liberal Party and China on Mr. Wang's behalf.

In an e-mailed statement, foreign-affairs spokeswoman Amy Mills said Mr. Wang's case "has been raised frequently by Canadian government officials since 2003.

"Canada is seriously concerned about reports that Mr. Wang's health has deteriorated and we have called on Chinese authorities to improve prison conditions and access to family visits."

Born in China, Mr. Wang completed a PhD at McGill before returning home and founding several political opposition parties. He was expelled from China, but continued his efforts. He was kidnapped in 2002 while in Vietnam, where he had travelled to meet with Chinese activists. His family believes he was organizing another political opposition movement. Instead, he was taken into China, where he was jailed and denied counsel.

Chinese authorities accused Mr. Wang of selling state secrets to Taiwanese spies, and advocating terrorism using kidnapping and explosives. China has said it acted lawfully in its treatment of Mr. Wang, arguing that its jurisdiction extends to any Chinese citizen guilty of criminal offences "outside the territory of the country."

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention disagreed, concluding that Mr. Wang had been arbitrarily detained in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting that China has never produced any evidence of Mr. Wang urging others to commit violence. The only kidnapping the UN could find was that of Mr. Wang himself.

In a dozen years in prison, Mr. Wang, now 68, has suffered strokes, severe depression and erratic moods.

His family has also suffered the disbelief of people skeptical China would seize a person from another country. Now that such cross-border apprehensions have gained far more attention – Chinese authorities have been accused of snatching dissidents and booksellers from Thailand and Hong Kong in recent months – that's "no longer something that's entirely unthinkable," Ms. Wang said.

China's new willingness to extend its authoritarian reach also underscores the reason for Ottawa to press Beijing on her father, she said.

He became a democracy activist in part because "Canadian values, North American values of freedom and democracy inspired him," she said. "If governments like Canada and the U.S. who espouse these values don't stand up for people like my father, who else can he count on?"

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe