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Lai Changxing: His case has cast a shadow over Canada-China relations for yearsLyle Stafford/Reuters/Reuters

It has become a judicial tradition in China. A holiday rolls around and – just as Western journalists and diplomats are heading for the airports – China's court system rapidly processes its most sensitive cases.

It was on Christmas Day in 2009 that dissident writer Liu Xiaobo (who has since received the Nobel Peace Prize) was sentenced 11 years in jail for his role in drafting the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08.

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in China, but Beijing's strategy worked in terms of making sure its critics were distracted. Mr. Liu's sentencing was back-page news, if it was covered at all, in that week's thin holiday newspapers in North America and Europe, and only a handful of Western diplomats were present outside the courtroom to show their concern over the process. The rest of the press and diplomatic corps were home eating turkey.

This year saw a string of high-profile decisions handed down in late December. Pro-democracy writer Chen Wei was given a nine-year sentence on Dec. 23, convicted of the same "incitement to subvert state power" charge that was used against Mr. Liu. Three days later, on Boxing Day, fellow dissident Chen Xi was jailed for 10 years on the same charge. Both men were among the original 303 signatories of Charter 08.

Included in this year's holiday clearing of the docket were two cases of specific interest to Canada. For more than a decade, alleged smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing's status as a fugitive in Canada was perhaps the biggest thorn in Ottawa-Beijing ties. That Zeng Hanlin, another man on China's most-wanted list, was living in Toronto while Mr. Lai hid in plain sight in Vancouver further complicated an already frosty relationship.

Both men were deported last year following separate court rulings that rejected the argument Mr. Lai and Mr. Zeng would face torture or execution if they were returned to face justice in China. Ties between Ottawa and Beijing improved perceptibly afterwards, but the cases had the potential to cause problems as long as they remained open, especially with Prime Minister Stephen Harper planning a trip to China early next month.

That concern no longer exists. On Dec. 30, state media announced that Mr. Lai had "confessed" to running a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring in the southern port of Xiamen during the 1990s. Why he suddenly felt compelled to admit his guilt after professing his innocence for 12 years in Canada is far from clear.

(China's justice system, which has a conviction rate of over 99 per cent and is believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined, is a black box. Nor is outside commentary appreciated. When the Canadian embassy in Beijing posted the entire text of the Federal Court's decision to repatriate Mr. Lai – which mentioned Liu Xiaobo's case and others – on the Embassy's local microblogging account, it was blocked by Chinese censors.)

Then last Friday – the last day before China shut down for the ongoing week-long celebration of the Lunar New Year – Mr. Zeng was sentenced to 15 years in prison. As usual, the sentence was handed down with little notice, and with no media present in the courtroom to hear the reasoning.

Unlike the pro-democracy activists, who are clearly being persecuted because they dared to oppose the ruling Communist Party, the guilt or innocence of Mr. Lai and Mr. Zeng is far less clear.

But having their cases conveniently closed will make it easier to get down to other business when Mr. Harper arrives here next month.