Time to find a solution to Canada-China mess

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Canadians trapped in the epicentre of the coronavirus in China had to wait in line behind the United States, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, Britain, Portugal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand, and Indonesia to even land a plan in the Wuhan airport.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 10, 2020.

OTTAWA—The wheels of justice grind too slowly in Canada.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the Vancouver International Airport back in 2018. She finally got her day in court last month, but the decision on her extradition case is expected to take several months.

Meanwhile, according to Canada’s new ambassador to China, relations between the two countries are grim.

Canadians trapped in the epicentre of the coronavirus in China had to wait in line behind the United States, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, Britain, Portugal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand, and Indonesia to even land a plan in the Wuhan airport.

Our people were treated with a diffidence similar to that afforded citizens of Taiwan, who wanted to be evacuated but were delayed because the Chinese government considers them citizens of their country.

On a business level, Canadians have been privately encouraging the Canadian government to find a way out of the Huawei mess.

The appointment of former business Sinophile Dominic Barton to the post of Canadian ambassador to China was seen as a step in the right direction.

But the ambassador’s two-hour appearance before a parliamentary committee last week laid rest to the notion that his work will be accomplished in short order.

Barton described the frosty welcome he got during his first meeting with his counterparts in decidedly undiplomatic terms.

It’s not as though Barton is new to China. As a key private-sector player, he has been actively engaged at the highest levels for the past two decades.

But representing the government of Canada comes with a whole new set of challenges.

Canada built a strong and stable relationship with China after our country became one of the first in the world to recognize the establishment of the People’s Republic of China back in 1970. That was done under the direction of prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who had travelled the country as a young backpacker before he ever entered politics.

Canada also benefited from the relationship of Dr. Norman Bethune to the China’s revered founder Mao Zedong. The two were so close that Bethune is lionized in Chinese revolutionary history and is better known to most Chinese than he is in Canada. But those deep and strong links have been damaged because of the Wanzhou case.

Former Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland presented the extradition case as a simple matter of the application of the rule of law.

However, foreign affairs experts affirm that the Canadian government would have been within its rights to inform China of the pending extradition request, and Wenzhou could have aborted her passage through Canada.

Instead, Canada is in the difficult position of doing America’s dirty work, while they get their planes to Wuhan and we are kept hanging.

Imagine how embarrassing it would be for Canada if one of our top business leaders was kept under house arrest for more than a year while the judicial extradition case lumbered along in China.

When Freeland departed the foreign ministry, many felt a new approach could end the impasse. But according to Barton, that is going to take some fancy footwork.

Barton told parliamentarians that both sides were literally spitting mad. Chinese are angered that the No. 2 in their country’s largest private company has been arrested at the request of a third country, the United States.

Canadians are equally upset that three Canadian citizens have been caught up in the judicial crossfire.

The “two Michaels,” as they are widely known were both arrested on the heels of the Meng Wanzhou’s detainment, with the Chinese government accusing them of being involved in state secrets.

The third Canadian referenced in committee, Robert Schellenberg, had already been convicted of drug smuggling in China, but his sentenced was increased from 19 years to death in the Meng fallout.

The best outcome of this mess would be a judicial decision in which the test for extradition has not been met.

Meng was alleged to have broken American law on sanctions against Iran but Canada does not apply the same sanctions, therefore an extradition could not be justified on that grounds.

Canadian lawyers made their extradition case on broader terms, claiming that a fraud could have been perpetrated on HSBC because of Meng’s actions.

We won’t know the answer to the judicial process for months to come.

Meanwhile, Canadians are paying the price in every walk of life, up to and including our right to evacuate countrymen from a coronavirus zone.

Time to find a solution to this mess.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.