Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says two Canadians imprisoned in China are “incredibly brave” but are facing “very difficult” conditions as she pleaded with her Beijing counterpart to hold high-level talks to resolve the diplomatic discord between the two countries.
In an appearance before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee Tuesday, however, Ms. Freeland acknowledged that it was unlikely that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi would agree to such talks any time soon.
“I am ready – indeed, I would be very happy at any time – to speak to my Chinese counterpart," she told MPs. "It is our understanding that in these situations, the Chinese practice tends to be – and Canada is not the only country that has found itself in this situation – the Chinese practice tends to be to hold off on meetings at the highest levels.”
Canada has been embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with China since the detention of Meng Wanzhou, a top Huawei Technologies executive, in Vancouver on Dec. 1. The detention was at the request of U.S. law-enforcement officials on an allegation of fraud relating to U.S. sanctions against Iran.
China subsequently detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor and banned shipments of Canadian canola and pork products.
Last week, China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, told The Globe and Mail that Canada must free Ms. Meng, whose father is the founder of Huawei, before normal relations can resume.
Although Ms. Freeland talked about the importance of high-level dialogue with China to resolve the worst diplomatic dispute since formal relations were established in 1971, she was blunt in her condemnation of Beijing for the detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
“We strongly condemn the arbitrary arrest of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” she said. "I want to assure everyone here that this is a top priority for the Prime Minister, for our whole government, and for me, personally. "
Both men were recently moved to a more normal Chinese detention centre, which is more akin to a jail – a modest improvement in living conditions – after they were formally accused of gathering state secrets and intelligence for overseas entities.
Since their arrests in December, they had been kept in “residential surveillance” detention centres, where they were interrogated up to eight hours a day and held in rooms with 24-hour lighting. They were not allowed to go outdoors, and were kept in a room where they could not see daylight and were refused access to a lawyer or family. They were granted monthly 30-minute consular visits with diplomats.
Ms. Freeland said the conditions the two men face are still not acceptable, even if it is less harsh than solitary confinement.
“The situation is very difficult. Both of them are incredibly resourceful, incredibly brave and are handling themselves under highly inappropriate circumstances very, very well,” she said. “The government of Canada continues to call for their immediate release."
A senior government official, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Ms. Freeland made a request to speak to China’s foreign minister on December 12, immediately after the government learned of the detentions of the two Canadians. He did not accept her phone call.
Ms. Freeland also called Mr. Lu, China’s envoy, that day and again on Dec. 21.
The official said consular access was granted to Ms. Meng the afternoon she was taken into custody in Vancouver. The same day she was taken into custody, foreign affairs had a telephone call with Mr. Lu on December 1, followed by a series of phone calls and meetings over the subsequent days with Chinese officials both in Ottawa and Beijing.
Unlike the two Canadians, Ms. Meng – who is regarded in China as a member of the country’s corporate royalty – is under house arrest at a mansion she owns in Vancouver. She can leave the house under escort and must wear a GPS ankle bracelet.
Ms. Freeland evaded testy questions from Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole, who deplored the way the Trudeau government has handled the Meng affair. He pressed her repeatedly to say when she had contacted top Chinese officials to inform them that Canada had arrested Ms. Meng.
The minister would only say that Chinese consular officials were informed of Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1, but she would not say whether she had followed up with a phone call to her Chinese counterpart.
“There was no initial outreach to China following the arrest even though the Prime Minister was aware the arrest was coming and he was aware it was very high profile and consequential, but there was no serious outreach,” Mr. O’Toole said in an interview. ”Certainly, the minister did not reach out to her counterpart. … And that allowed the situation to become protracted and now a deeply diplomatic crisis.”
Mr. O’Toole said the Conservative Party supports the idea of a high-profile envoy being sent to Beijing to resolve the dispute – someone such as former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who led Team Canada missions to China.
Ms. Freeland said Canada is orchestrating an international coalition of Western countries to put pressure on China to release the two Canadians, citing Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as the European Union, the G7 and NATO.