Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University, and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
The photographs released by his family show Kevin Garratt at the Vancouver Airport looking a little thinner but with good colour, and very happy to be home. That being said, one cannot expect that more than two years' incarceration in a Chinese prison has not seriously affected Mr. Garrett's health and wellbeing. The tragedy of it all is that Mr. Garratt was the innocent victim of a trivial geopolitical game played out with appalling disregard for his human rights by the government of China.
Before their arrests, Mr. Garratt and his wife Julia had been in China discreetly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus for more than 30 years, most recently serving coffee and pie at their cafe in Dandong. By coincidence, I was there just before its closure. The mood music was Christian contemporary. From the table by the window one could just make out the North Korean border guards carrying AK47s on the far side of the Yalu River.
In 2014, there was a campaign in China, presumably at the behest of North Korea, to clear foreign Christian missionaries out of towns on the Chinese side of the China-Korea border. Most of them had been working with North Korean Christians to relieve the severe deprivation among the poor living in the border area. On this basis, it's likely that Mr. Garratt was identified by Chinese authorities as a candidate for deportation back to Canada.
Around this time, then-prime minister Stephen Harper made a statement condemning agents of China for hacking into National Research Council computers holding secret Canadian aerospace research data. Mr. Harper's statement was strongly condemned by the Chinese government as "irresponsible." Not long after, the Chinese State Security Ministry, already with the Garratts in its sights, and in a petulant and ill-conceived tit-for-tat, arrested Mr. and Mrs. Garratt on the basis they had being purloining Chinese state defense research secrets. The accusation was tragically absurd. Mr. Garratt was then subject to harsh regime of interrogation, with a view to getting him to falsely confess that he was a spy for Canada. In a tribute to Mr. Garratt's personal fortitude, he evidently was not prepared to sign off on whatever incriminating fiction the Chinese authorities cooked up, so he remained incarcerated.
Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government proposed sending the Garratts home if Ottawa agreed to repatriate Chinese national Su Bin to Beijing instead of sending him to the United States to face serious espionage charges. This would have let Beijing save face by ridding themselves of the problem of being unable to provide any credible explanation for why Mr. Garratt had been arrested and held for so long without due process of law. But ultimately Mr. Su preferred to do a plea bargain with the Americans, pleading guilty to all charges, causing the Chinese regime more embarrassment.
It is clear that the Chinese government underestimated the degree of Canadian public outrage over Canadian citizens unjustly imprisoned in foreign lands for ill-defined political reasons. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Canada last June he insisted on a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a move that went beyond normal diplomatic protocol. At that 15 minute confab, Mr. Trudeau – rather than showing ritual deference to a senior representative of the Middle Kingdom – instead used the occasion to explain to Mr. Wang at length that Mr. Garratt's continued imprisonment was severely constraining the possibilities for greater engagement, which China was expecting from the new Liberal government. One can understand why it was that when Mr. Garrett's name was brought up again at a press conference shortly thereafter that Mr. Wang lost his composure and delivered the diatribe that has marked him forever as a diplomatic philistine.
Mr. Garratt's return to Canada occurred unexpectedly at the midpoint between Mr. Trudeau's return from his lengthy China visit and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's trip to Canada next week. Had Mr. Garratt still been in prison it would have been very difficult for Mr. Li to argue convincingly that Canada should be repatriating corrupt Chinese officials, or indeed negotiating a formal extradition treaty with China. Now the implication is that Canada has a reciprocal obligation to give China something back.
For Mr. Trudeau, this is a significant win as well. It demonstrates that his policy of a full-court-press engagement with Chinese authorities is not counter to Canadian human rights concerns. Mr. Trudeau was able to get Mr. Garratt back where Mr. Harper and his policies of conditional engagement failed. It does open the way for Mr. Trudeau to respond to China with the pipeline to B.C. that it wants so badly, and takes the pressure off accusations that he is compromising Canadian interests by encouraging Chinese state investment in Canada.
The Garratts are fundamentally good people who by all accounts are universally liked and admired by all who know them. All Canadians celebrate Mr. Garratt's release.