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China's new ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu attends a news conference for a small group of reporters at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2019.Blair Gable/Reuters

Beijing’s ambassador to Canada has been away from his Ottawa post since the end of January – attending to what the Chinese embassy described as official business in China.

China’s diplomatic mission in Ottawa, which addressed envoy Cong Peiwu’s absence in a short statement, in response to a question from The Globe and Mail, did not elaborate on what matter is preoccupying him back home.

An absence of nearly four months is an unusual length of time for an ambassador, former diplomats say.

However, travel in and out of China is difficult because of COVID-19-related lockdowns and lengthy quarantines. China is still pursuing a zero-COVID policy.

Relations between Canada and China remain extremely strained in the wake of Ottawa’s late 2018 arrest of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. Ties between China and many Western countries have also been damaged as a result of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, its internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and its increased menacing of Taiwan.

Beijing subsequently locked up two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what the Canadian government called a reprisal for Ms. Meng’s arrest. Ms. Meng has since been freed and the two Canadians sent home, but tensions continue.

Last week, Canada banned equipment made by Huawei and ZTE – another Chinese telecom equipment maker – from Canada’s wireless networks, saying a review determined they posed security risks. In response, the Chinese government accused Ottawa of “political manipulation” and warned that Beijing would “take all necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.”

China accuses Canada of ‘political manipulation’ over 5G ban of Huawei, ZTE

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, said Mr. Cong’s absence “is not normal.” One would expect a foreign envoy to remain in their post except for a periodic visit to headquarters or annual vacation, he said.

Mr. Cong was appointed to Canada as ambassador in September, 2019. He previously served as director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, which is responsible not only for the United States and Canada but also countries including Australia and New Zealand.

Mr. Saint-Jacques speculated that Mr. Cong has been called back to undergo training in “Xi Jinping Thought,” which would be required schooling for rising Chinese government officials. The political ideology of Mr. Xi, China’s President and the General-Secretary of the Communist Party of China, is required learning for party cadres. It’s been recognized in China’s constitution and this year Beijing’s Ministry of Education announced Xi Jinping Thought would be taught to Chinese students starting at the primary school level.

“In the case of Cong Peiwu they probably came to the conclusion that there is not much going on in the Canadian relationship and therefore we might as well use the time for him to get further training,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

“The other possible training would how to conduct foreign policy to reflect the views of Xi Jinping,” he said.

A new, assertive and outspoken breed of Chinese diplomats, dubbed “wolf warriors,” has emerged in recent years, but Mr. Xi has not been satisfied with the conduct of many of his country’s foreign envoys, feeling not all were aggressive enough, Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

He said the next step for Mr. Cong would either be ambassador to a larger country than Canada or a vice-minister position in Beijing – the latter job likely requiring him to accumulate managerial experience in a large Chinese city.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said in his opinion China has little use for Canada as ties have cooled after a failed effort in 2017 to launch free-trade talks between Ottawa and Beijing, which would have been the Chinese government’s first trade deal with a Group of Seven country. “All the official dialogue has been suspended. There is not much going on. They see us as a very minor partner,” he said.

David Mulroney, another veteran of Canada’s diplomatic corps who served as ambassador to China between 2009 and 2012, said he is puzzled by Mr. Cong’s absence.

He said Canada-China relations remain in “a deep freeze,” and “it speaks to the state of the relationship that nobody has really noticed” Mr. Cong was away.

Canada currently has no ambassador posted to China. Ottawa has not replaced management consultant Dominic Barton after he left the post in December, 2021.

Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat to China and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said China could be protesting against Canada not finding a suitable candidate to serve as envoy in Beijing for six months.

He said China’s COVID restrictions would not have detained Mr. Cong in China for nearly four months. “My feeling is the only reason he would go back is if he was called back by his government; it wouldn’t be a normal leave.”

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