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Politics No, Mr. Scheer, the blame for detained Canadians lies in Beijing, not Ottawa

Andrew Scheer is right to criticize Justin Trudeau’s China policy, but he was emphatically wrong when he blamed the Prime Minister for two Canadians still languishing in Chinese jails.

Let’s get this straight: It is the Chinese government that is to blame for the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

It’s important to remember that because there are a lot of complications and nuances in Canada-China relations or in trade disputes over canola or pork – but no one should let that cloud the clear cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

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This is a hostage-taking. Beijing is angry that the Canadian government had the gall to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou when she was wanted on U.S. charges. So the two Canadians were arrested in obvious retaliation. The goal is to put pressure on Mr. Trudeau, and his government, to bend to Beijing’s will, and failing that, to punish – so other countries think twice before arresting one of China’s lordly untouchable class.

There’s nothing that the Chinese officials behind the detentions – believed by some China-watchers to stem from the orders of President Xi Jinping himself – would like better than to see Mr. Trudeau take a political beating over the detentions.

So when Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives were embarrassed this week by the use of pictures of the two detainees in a political advertisement, they should have been embarrassed by the whole political message about the detained Canadians – that Mr. Trudeau “has failed to negotiate the release of two Canadians arbitrarily imprisoned in China, who are being held in inhumane conditions.”

Make no mistake, there are plenty of ways to criticize Mr. Trudeau’s handling of this dispute with China. This is not one of them. Dangling the detentions of two Canadians out before the public and complaining the Prime Minister hasn’t freed them can only help increase Beijing’s leverage. And that should be an embarrassment.

Canadian politicians – both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer – have to treat those detentions differently than other parts of the dispute, such as China’s ban of imports of canola, pork and beef.

The Chinese locked up two Canadians precisely to bully, to pressure, to scare. They know that Canada can’t and won’t do the same – in fact, Ms. Meng is free on bail awaiting extradition hearings and living at one of her two Vancouver mansions. Beijing has refused to entertain high-level talks. Its position is simply that Ms. Meng must be released. There is no negotiation. What exactly should Mr. Trudeau be offering? Shame on Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives for suggesting that these two Canadians would be free if only the Prime Minister had negotiated better with the hostage-taker.

It’s a shame, too, because Mr. Scheer is right in arguing that Canada should be doing more. He is right that Mr. Trudeau’s government can’t keep expressing outrage – and asking allies to do the same – while acting like it is “business as usual” and sending Small Business Minister Mary Ng to events in China, where she was photographed happily eating ice cream.

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Yes, it is time for Canada to take steps, including some of those suggested by Mr. Scheer. It’s just that the Conservative Leader shouldn’t be claiming, as he did in an e-mailed statement, that those measures would give Canada leverage to “negotiate freeing the detained Canadians from a position of strength.”

Mr. Scheer has called for Canada to prepare a World Trade Organization challenge against China’s bans on Canadian imports. He’s right. There has to be a response to Chinese trade intimidation. But it is slow, and will only provide potential redress, not leverage.

There must be a response. But it is foolish, and potentially dangerous, to pretend the tactics Mr. Scheer proposes will make Mr. Xi feel such pain he will quickly relent, and release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. They are hostages, and China won’t release them easily. If Mr. Scheer is elected prime minister this fall, he is likely to find that, too.

In the meantime, it’s fine to blame Mr. Trudeau for not being assertive enough. But no leader should be pointing the finger at anyone in Ottawa because two Canadians languish in Chinese jails. The blame for that belongs to Beijing.

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