Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Louis Huang holds a placard calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside a court hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 6, 2019.

Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Luke Patey is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, in Copenhagen.

Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor began the new year as they ended the last: cut off from family and friends while languishing away in a Chinese prison. The year ahead will see a new parliamentary committee critically examine Canada’s relations with China and possible new ideas to secure the release of the two men. But it is crucial to recognize that Canada alone has limited power to push back. The new rallying cry in Ottawa must now be “strength in numbers.” Canada should look to its European and Asian partners, who also face China’s hostage diplomacy and trade restrictions, to create an international coalition against Beijing’s unwanted interference.

On the anniversary of China’s detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, column after column in the Canadian and international press advised Beijing that, by imprisoning the Canadians, it is only deepening anxieties in the West and Asia toward China’s rise and legitimizing calls from the United States for others to take a more aggressive line on Beijing.

Story continues below advertisement

But despite the hope that China’s leaders might listen to the better angels of their nature, we should accept that Beijing may want the world to see and fear the brazen power of its retaliation against Canada. The arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities on a U.S. warrant triggered China’s retaliatory detentions. Releasing the two Canadians, or relaxing its trade restrictions on Canadian exports, would be backing down from what Beijing sees as an attack on its national interests in a new strategic competition with the U.S. Keeping the men in prison, on the other hand, warns other countries of the consequences of crossing China’s red lines.

For more than a year now, the Trudeau government has stood up for the rule of law in Canada, but has neglected calls to take a stronger stand against China’s aggression. This is despite advice from former Canadian ambassadors to China and other experts to consider countermeasures such as placing legal trade restrictions on Chinese products and considering a withdrawal from the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Parliament has now taken matters into its own hands. Over protests from the Liberal minority government, a Conservative motion was passed last month to create a special committee on Canada’s relations with China. Mr. Trudeau, for his part, has tied his hopes to U.S. President Donald Trump making the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor a stipulation of a trade deal with China.

But even if the new committee is instrumental in advancing a stronger response, Canada cannot muster much pressure on China by itself. Neither is the U.S. a reliable ally under Mr. Trump. Instead, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne should revive efforts to gather international support to end China’s hostage diplomacy.

The verbal backing Canada has received from its international partners in Europe and Asia must now be developed into policy action. Beijing may brush off Canada’s possible withdrawal from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or its potential implementation of the Magnitsky Act to punish China’s human-rights offenders, but it will be hard to ignore if other countries follow suit. Canadians are, after all, not the only ones facing China’s ire.

Last November, the Chinese ambassador to Sweden threatened to ban Amanda Lind, the Swedish Culture Minister, from visiting China should a literary prize be awarded to Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, who like Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, is a political prisoner in China. While Sweden is not yet facing trade restrictions like Canada, China is threatening to cancel business delegations and tourism to the Scandinavian country.

Two Australian MPs have recently been blocked from entering China until, Beijing says, they “genuinely repent” their criticism of China’s human-rights record. Australian writer Yang Hengjun is also imprisoned in China and facing espionage charges. And China has banned coal shipments from Australia during the ongoing diplomatic tensions.

Story continues below advertisement

To build a coalition against China’s hostage diplomacy, we must recognize that the world’s democracies are far from helpless. China is more susceptible to outside pressure than is commonly understood, with its leaders often prioritizing strategic and economic interests above their political demands of foreign governments.

Mr. Trudeau may think strategic patience is the best response to China’s pressure, but inaction only legitimizes detentions as tools of influence, encouraging China and other authoritarian governments to use them. Mr. Trudeau may not be in power when such an incident occurs again, but Canadians will remain in harm’s way if our leaders continue to sit idly by.

Cut off from their families and loved ones, the despair Mr. Kovrig, Mr. Spavor and other political prisoners must feel in China is unimaginable. Ottawa must take a stand and show them that they are not alone.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies