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Politics Former PM Jean Chrétien prepared to travel to China to help free Spavor and Kovrig

A spokesman for the 85-year-old former Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien – seen here in Beijing in April, 2016 with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang – said he would go to China if asked to do so.

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Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien is prepared to travel to Beijing to help free two jailed Canadians and resolve a Chinese trade blockage against Canadian farm products.

The Conservative Party and former prime minister Brian Mulroney have urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enlist Mr. Chrétien as a special envoy.

A spokesman for the 85-year-old Mr. Chrétien said he would go to China if asked to do so.

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"If the Prime Minister asks Mr. Chrétien, he would be prepared to go to China to serve Canada at this difficult time to help our farmers and bring our two Canadians home,” spokesman Bruce Hartley told The Globe and Mail on Friday.

Matt Pascuzzo, press secretary to Mr. Trudeau, would only say that the Prime Minister has had discussions with Mr. Chrétien, who was known for close ties to Beijing’s leadership and for leading trade-focused Team Canada trips to China in the 1990s.

“Our top priority remains the safety of the two Canadians arbitrarily detained by the Chinese government and the Prime Minister recently had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Mr. Chrétien,” he said. “We remain focused on securing the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. All Canadians should continue working together to bring the two detained Canadians home safely.”

However, former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney said Ottawa would be sending the wrong message by dispatching Mr. Chrétien − particularly after Beijing, he said, has taken such rogue actions with arbitrarily detaining the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

“The problem with sending a former prime minister is that it dignifies and normalizes what is essentially a state-orchestrated kidnapping,” Mr. Mulroney said.

“And while we know what the kidnappers want − the immediate return of Ms. Meng Wanzhou − it’s unclear how a high-level Canadian envoy might respond [to that].”

It has been more than six months since Canada angered Beijing by arresting Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Ms. Meng to comply with a U.S. extradition request. Days later – in what was widely seen as retaliation – China detained Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, and Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur. Since then, China has been inflicting pain on Canadian farmers, banning and restricting the import of significant Canadian commodities including canola, soybeans, pork and beef.

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China has made it clear it isn’t ready to end the deep freeze in bilateral relations until Ms. Meng is freed. Her extradition hearing alone is expected to take until the fall of 2020 – and an appeal would prolong the case further.

Mr. Chrétien, who served as prime minister between 1993 and 2003, was accused during his tenure of underplaying human-rights concerns in China in the interests of drumming up business. He said he wasn’t afraid of raising human rights but felt Canada is a small country that really can’t influence the leadership of a country of more than a billion people.

In 1994, he suggested it wasn’t his place to lecture then-Chinese premier Li Peng. “I’m the Prime Minister of a country of 28 million people. [Li Peng’s] Premier of one with 1.2 billion. I’m not allowed to tell the premier of Saskatchewan or Quebec what to do. Am I supposed to tell the premier of China what to do?”

Mr. Chrétien is held in high esteem by the Canada-China business lobby. In 2018, the Canada China Business Council presented him with a “business excellence” award for his past service in opening doors for Canadian capital in China.

Mr. Mulroney, the former PM, has suggested Mr. Chrétien should lead a delegation to China along with his billionaire son-in-law, André Desmarais, who is deputy chairman and co-chief executive of Montreal’s Power Corp.

He told The Canadian Press that Mr. Desmarais, who has extensive business interests in China, “is held in extremely high regard by the Chinese and probably knows more about China than any other living Canadian that’s not in public life.”

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Separately, on Friday, law firm McMillan LLP announced it has hired former Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum as a strategic adviser.

Mr. McCallum, a former Liberal cabinet minister and veteran MP, was fired from his diplomatic post after he waded into the legal case surrounding Ms. Meng, telling media he believed she had strong legal arguments in her favour to avoid being extradited to the United States. He also speculated U.S. President Donald Trump might intervene and cut a deal that would result in her freedom.

Mr. Trudeau has already said he is looking to arrange a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit later in June after months of deteriorating relations between the two countries.

The Prime Minister said he wants to talk about China’s retaliation against Canada after Ms. Meng’s arrest.

“The continued detention of two Canadians in an arbitrary manner by the Chinese government is of utmost concern to us. Their actions on canola, their issues around other products as well, is of concern," Mr. Trudeau said. "We are going to highlight the processes and the engagement that Canada has with the world and the way China should engage with the world needs to remain, following the rules, principles and values that we’ve all agreed to.”

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