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Politics After arrest and isolation, China seizes Kovrig’s reading glasses

In this file photo taken on March 6, 2019, Louis Huang of Vancouver Freedom and Democracy for China holds photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are now in their seventh month of detention in China.

JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese authorities have confiscated the reading glasses of imprisoned Canadian Michael Kovrig as Beijing increases political and economic pressure on Canada to allow a detained senior Huawei Technologies executive to return home, sources say.

The confiscation is the latest move by Chinese authorities against Mr. Kovrig and fellow Canadian, Michael Spavor, who are now in their seventh month of detention. The two men were moved in early June from solitary confinement to a detention centre, which is more akin to a jail, after being formally charged with stealing state secrets. But they are still kept in rooms where the lights are on 24 hours a day and they continue to face interrogations, according to two sources to whom The Globe and Mail granted anonymity so they could speak frankly about the difficulties facing the Canadians.

The two men have been prevented from seeing family or lawyers but have been granted monthly, 30-minute consular meetings.

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Last week, China also increased economic pressure on Ottawa when it suspended all meat exports from Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tried to rally allies to press Beijing to free Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. Mr. Trudeau raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last weekend but the Prime Minister gave few details about the interaction.

At a news conference on Tuesday, reporters asked Mr. Trudeau what assurances he has received that U.S. President Donald Trump pressed Mr. Xi on the detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, as Mr. Trump had told Mr. Trudeau he would.

“I am confident that the Americans brought up the issue and that President Trump brought up the issue of the detained Canadians in China,” Mr. Trudeau said. He did not say why he was confident the matter was raised.

“I had a number of conversations with President Xi directly on this and the larger issue of Canada-China relations and we are very pleased so many countries around the world, our allies and friends and others, have highlighted to China that the situation these two Canadians find themselves in is unacceptable,” Mr. Trudeau added.

According to sources, Beijing considers Mr. Kovrig, a diplomat on leave from Global Affairs, as more high-profile than Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur who organizes tours of North Korea. This is because of Mr. Kovrig’s connections to the Canadian government.

Mr. Kovrig, who speaks fluent Mandarin, worked for more than a decade as a diplomat in Beijing and Hong Kong and at the United Nations in New York before taking a leave of absence to join the International Crisis Group in Beijing, a non-governmental organization that works to resolve armed conflicts.

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The confiscation of Mr. Kovrig’s glasses makes it difficult for him to read, an action that former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, called “cruel.”

“Being able to read is one of the few small comforts available to someone,” he said.

China expert Charles Burton, a professor at Brock University, said he suspects Chinese authorities might be trying to demoralize Mr. Kovrig as a tactic to get him to confess to charges of violating China’s national security.

“Part of their technique is disorientation with a view to forcing a confession under duress so I suppose making it impossible for him to read might help in that regard,” he said.

The detention of Mr Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, as well as Chinese restrictions and blockages of Canadian agriculture goods, are widely seen as retribution for Canada acting on a U.S. extradition request against Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

For privacy reasons, Global Affairs will not discuss the conditions of the two men or comment on the confiscation of Mr. Kovrig’s reading glasses. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa had no immediate comment.

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However, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has said the conditions the two men face are still “very difficult” even after being moved out of solitary confinement.

In contrast, Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, lives in a multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver and is free to move about the city until an 11 p.m. curfew. She is out on $10-million bail; her extradition case will begin in September and is expected to last at least 16 months.

China has demanded Ms. Meng’s immediate release before it will agree to normalize relations with Canada.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told The Globe on Tuesday that Mr. Trudeau has to stop “getting bullied around” by China and “start to stand up” for Canada.

Mr. Scheer said Canada should withdraw from the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, lodge a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization about Beijing’s trade actions against Canadian canola, soybeans, pork and beef, and draw up a list of retaliatory measures.

“Why would China listen when there are no actions? They can just ignore all the overtures if there are not any real costs,” Mr. Scheer said. “We should be preparing the work for retaliatory tariffs to study which products we could respond to that would have the biggest effect on China and the smallest effect on Canada.”

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