Parliamentarians heading to China on diplomatic trip amid tension over detained Canadians
A delegation of MPs and senators is heading to China this week, and the detention of two Canadians in the Asian nation is expected to be a major topic of discussion.
The diplomatic trip, scheduled before last month’s detentions, is being taken by members of the Canada-China Legislative Association, a bipartisan group of four MPs and two Senators with a shared interest in Canada-China relations.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who is joining three Liberal MPs on the trip, called the ongoing tensions worrisome but insisted “we’re going and that’s the plan.”
“I and all the members of the delegation want to do whatever we can to play a constructive role to see the safe and speedy return of the two Canadians,” Cooper said in an interview on CTV’s Power Play.
This is the highest level Canadian delegation to visit China since Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave from Global Affairs employed by the International Crisis Group in Beijing, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur who organized trips to North Korea, were arrested on Dec. 10.
Their detentions came nine days after Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the Vancouver International Airport and accused of sidestepping U.S sanctions against Iran.
China ratcheted up its accusations against the two detained Canadians on Thursday, with the country’s chief prosecutor declaring that the pair broke Chinese law “without a doubt.”
"We have said here that these two Canadian citizens are under investigation in accordance with law for engaging in activities that undermine China's national security," said the prosecutor, Zhang Jun, at a briefing in Beijing.
"It is not convenient to disclose more information now."
Those comments don’t offer any new information for Kovrig’s distressed family and friends, who still don’t know why or for how long he’s being detained, said Robert Malley, president of the Crisis Group.
“We don’t know what law the Chinese authorities are talking about,” said Malley, who once served on U.S President Barack Obama’s national security council.
As for the suggestion that Kovrig did anything to undermine China’s national security, Malley said those accusations are false.
“But they know this as well as I do,” he said.
As evidence, Malley says that analysts with Crisis Group were being invited to meet with Chinese officials up until the day Kovrig was arrested.
“So it’s very hard to imagine that it’s anything that he was doing or the organization was doing that triggered China’s unhappiness.”
Malley says the detentions undermine China’s recent efforts to bill itself as open for business.
“Particularly now since President Trump was elected, China wanted to grab this mantle of being the responsible actor on the world stage that was standing up for certain rules. This really stands in absolute flagrant contrast to that message, and it can’t be good for China. It certainly is not good for Michael,” he said.
MP: ‘It was better that we go than not go’
After news broke of Kovrig and Spavor, Minister of Tourism Melanie Joly postponed a planned trip to China to attend a tourism event at the last minute. Jeremy Ghio, a spokesperson for Joly’s office, told CTV News that the delay to her trip was “mutually agreed to” by both countries.
Cooper said that despite planning to discuss the Canadians’ detention, the purpose of the trip is to engage directly with Chinese government officials to discuss a broad range of issues, such as trade.
On Thursday, the United States issued an updated security statement, advising its citizens to “exercise increased caution in China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual U.S.-Chinese nationals.”
Ottawa has yet to update its travel advisory for Canadians heading to, or who are already in, China, though the current instruction is to “exercise a high degree of caution.”
The six Parliamentarians on the trip will stay in touch with Global Affairs Canada and embassy officials. Cooper said that, if there were concerns about safety, the group would not be going.
“The message from Global Affairs Canada was that it was better that we go than not go,” Cooper said.
According to the association’s page on the Parliament of Canada website, the delegation will be visiting Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.
The two detained Canadians have only had one consular visit since their arrests. John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, met with the men individually in December.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has repeatedly called on China to release the men.