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Globe editorial: China must end its cruel detainment of government critics

The Trudeau government is eager to encourage Canadian commerce with China, which makes perfect economic sense. But sometimes Beijing seems to be intent on making that hard to achieve, by ignoring deeply held Western principles of justice. The rulers of China act almost as if to make a point about their ruthlessness.

Late last month, Canada, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and Britain wrote a joint letter urging Beijing to end its harmless-sounding practice of "residential surveillance at a designated place."

It is far from harmless. These "designated places" are not identified to anyone except the Chinese security agency. Instead, detainees – Chinese human-rights lawyers, rights activists, members of the Falun Gong cult and other categories especially obnoxious to the regime – are held for as many as six months, their whereabouts unknown even to their families and friends.

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The letter expressed "growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders."

It might seem merciful that there's a six-month limit, but since the prisoners' location is unknown to their friends, the actual length of these sentences is hard to determine. There has been at least one report of a detention lasting 500 days.

One conspicuous Western country has so far not taken an active part on this file. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he will work on it, but neither President Trump nor he has joined with the group that sent the letter. It's hard not to interpret this as a hard-nosed, short-sighted "realism" that will yield little.

The practice of "residential surveillance" is uncomfortably similar to the reported recent abduction from Hong Kong of the businessman Xiao Jianhua – who is also a dual Chinese-Canadian citizen – and of the muckraking Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared from 2015 to 2016.

Canada and its partners are right to protest this kind of blatant injustice and cruelty, and to put pressure on China to end it. The U.S. should show some courage and add its name.

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