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Conservative MP Michael Chong in the House of Commons in Ottawa, March 19, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

China can no longer credibly use the “excuse” of COVID-19 to continue keeping Canadian diplomats from visiting Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the Conservative foreign affairs critic says.

Conservative MP Michael Chong also says this past week’s virtual consular visits to Kovrig and Spavor should have happened much sooner.

“COVID-19 is an excuse that doesn’t hold water,” Chong said in an interview Sunday.

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“The economy in China has largely reopened,” he added. “A direct in-person visit should have already taken place a long time ago with appropriate social distancing.”

Kovrig and Spavor have been in prison in China since December 2018 in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada arresting Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant.

Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, had internet-based visits with Spavor on Friday and Kovrig on Saturday.

It was the first contact Canadian diplomats have had with the two men since in-person visits in mid-January.

The Chinese government has said it can’t allow in-person visits to prisons because of concerns around COVID-19. The federal government has been pushing China since the spring for an alternative form of access in order to check on the welfare of the two men.

“There was absolutely no reason that virtual access couldn’t have been offered by China even during the height of the pandemic, and no justification for denying in-person visits after China emerged from lockdown during the summer,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

“This is simply more cruel treatment by China, with the expectation that we will be grateful even for even a half-hearted effort on their part. We shouldn’t fall into that trap.”

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Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne pressed for virtual access in his own in-person meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, when the two crossed paths in Rome in August.

Up until January, Canadian diplomats had been able to visit the two men approximately once a month.

Chong reiterated past Conservative criticism of the government’s handling of relations with China, saying its approach has lacked coherence, and that Canada should impose targeted sanctions on the people responsible for the imprisonment of the two men.

But Chong said he is seeing signs of the government taking a firmer stand against China recently with tougher rhetoric this past week from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“I think the Liberal government’s finally responding to the pressure that the Conservatives have been putting on then,” said Chong.

Sajjan accused China of engaging in “hostage diplomacy” in an online panel discussion, while Rae ripped into his Chinese counterpart in a meeting of the UN General Assembly on Friday for saying that Canada was bullying the People’s Republic.

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Rae said Meng was living under “house arrest” while Spavor and Kovrig “have been living in terrible conditions, without consular access, without any humane treatment whatsoever.”

“This is something which we shall never forget,” Rae added.

“If you think that insulting us or insulting my country or insulting anyone is going to help in resolving the situation, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Champagne, too, has ramped up his public criticism of China’s human rights record on a number of issues: Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and the forced detention Uighur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang province.

In a recent interview prior to the virtual visits with Kovrig and Spavor, Champagne said Canada would continue to push back against Beijing by working with allies.

“We need to act together, and we need to be strong together to face what we have seen, a coercive type of diplomacy by China,” the minister said.

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Champagne said it was significant that the case of the “two Michaels” was raised in China’s recent summit with the European Union, including in its final communique.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also thanked U.S. President Donald Trump for America’s “ongoing support” in the effort to free Kovrig and Spavor during a Saturday phone call.

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