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Any moves by Canada to sanction Chinese officials for human rights violations against the Muslim Uyghur population would be met with a “strong and resolute reaction,” according to China’s ambassador in Ottawa.
A letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by 64 Canadian MPs and senators called for sanctions to be levied against officials deemed guilty of abuses in Xinjiang province and Hong Kong.
But Cong Peiwu said such a move would be deemed to be interference in China’s domestic affairs. “It would demonstrate ideological prejudice against China and a disregard for the basic facts,” he said.
“It is the lie of the century to claim China has put one or even two million people into concentration camps.”
Xinjiang faced threats from “separatist terrorists” that claimed innocent lives, he said. The Chinese government responded with “education and training centres” where “students” learn Chinese and labour skills to help them find jobs, he said. When he was asked about footage screened by the BBC of hundreds of detainees lined up at a railway depot, Cong said it was merely a prisoner transfer. “That is normal procedure … a very common practice,” he said. “The focus has been on so-called concentration camps but there are none of them.”
On Hong Kong, global affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said that Trudeau government is considering “additional measures” on the immigration front, in conjunction with Great Britain and Australia, potentially offering a pathway to citizenship for people who would like to leave the territory. Sources said work is underway and options are being actively considered.
Cong said it is up to the 300,000 or so Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong whether they stay or leave.
It is the lie of the century to claim China has put one or even two million people into concentration camps
But he said China would oppose any country interfering in the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
In an interview inside the Ottawa embassy compound, Cong said Canada should share with China’s interest in preserving the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, which was threatened by people “engaged in violent crimes” that had scared off investors.
He said Britain has violated its agreement with China by offering a new home to Hong Kong residents born before the handover in 1997 who hold British National (Overseas) passports.
One suggestion is that Canada and Australia offer resident status to Hongkongers born after 1997 who do not hold BN(O) passports.
Cong said that the Hong Kong national security law is designed to protect the rights of the majority and to deter “the very small number of people engaged in dangerous crimes.”
Cong is a welcome departure from his predecessor, that most undiplomatic of diplomats, Lu Shaye, who accused Canada of “Western egotism” and “white supremacy.”
But while he is more restrained, Cong is no less devoted to the party line. In a wide-ranging interview, he refuted accusations that the embassy co-ordinates influence and intimidation campaigns against its opponents in this country. Witnesses at the Canada-China parliamentary committee this week suggested that Canadians of Hong Kong origin were targeted with “bullying and harassment” by the Chinese government.
Cong said one of the functions of the embassy is to communicate with Canadians, including those of Chinese origin. “This kind of discussion can be defined as influence but there is not much logic to it. We are sitting here but are we trying to infiltrate and influence the National Post? Regular contact is one of our functions. We send out our message and it is up to you to take it up or not. We have every reason to communicate with our people,” he said.
The door is still wide open
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between Canada and China, he recognized relations are at a low ebb. Just 14 per cent of Canadians look favourably on China, according to an Angus Reid poll, down from nearly 50 per cent in 2017.
But he said “important progress” has been made — a pre-COVID-19 trading relationship worth $74 billion, two way travel of 1.5 million people and 230,000 Chinese students studying here.
A chill set into the relationship with the detention of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, in December 2018, after an extradition request by the U.S., in relation to alleged breaches in sanctions against Iran.
“This is the main obstacle, the most outstanding issue,” said Cong.
He said Canada was “taken advantage of by the U.S.”
“The U.S. plotted what we call a very severe political incident as it prepared to bring down Huawei.”
He said China sees political, rather than judicial, motivations in the actions of the Americans and urged Canada to make its own decisions.
(Judging by the recent memoir by former U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, the White House knew about Meng’s imminent detention long before the Trudeau government — the prime minister is said to have found out after the fact, when he was handed a note at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires).
Cong said that the Meng case is “totally different” to the detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The two men were detained just nine days after Meng’s arrest. “You could call it a coincidence,” said Cong. After 557 days of interrogation, the two Michaels were formally charged with espionage, a crime punishable by life in prison.
It would demonstrate ideological prejudice against China and a disregard for the basic facts
Cong said the two are being treated “in strict accordance with the law” and their rights are being protected. That account contrasts starkly with reports the two men were initially interrogated for six to eight hours a day and kept under 24 hour lighting. Consular and legal visits were cut off during the COVID pandemic.
Cong said the two cases are different in nature. “A large number of people have been misled by reports from the U.S. trying to blacken China’s image,” he said.
It is all a far cry from 2017, when the relationship with China was still strong, and the enthusiasm from the Trudeau government to launch free trade negotiations was almost undignified.
During the prime minister’s visit to Beijing, his advances were rebuffed.
“We were very close but they put forward some terms and we said ‘we can be patient.’ But we are happy to continue,” Cong said. “The door is still wide open.”
Yet even that is not true, as canola exporters Richardson International and Viterra Inc. would testify.
Cong said the suspension of canola shipments by the two Canadian suppliers is specific to them, caused by concerns over “quarantined pests.” He said negotiations to recommence canola imports are ongoing and pointed to a doubling of pork imports from Canada in the first half of this year as evidence that the trade relationship can still flourish.
“I believe there is huge potential, if we can remove the main obstacle (Meng’s detention),” he said.
The exclusion of Huawei from the development of Canada’s 5G network might further test that assurance. The government has yet to make a formal decision but the three main carriers — Bell, Telus and Rogers — have all announced partnerships with European suppliers in the development of the multi-billion dollar 5G network.
“My message is for there to be a non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies,” Cong said.
When asked to comment on the observation by a Japanese academic that China is making the same mistakes Japan made in the 1930s — an ugly nationalism, supported by the majority of the people and taken advantage of by a military that has no civilian supervision — Cong tried to offer reassurance.
“We are committed to path of peaceful development. It is our national policy and enshrined in our constitution,” he said. “China is focused on its own development and has no intention of dominating the world or overtaking the U.S.
“It is the U.S. that is dragging the world into Cold War Two and is trying to get a lot of countries to oppose China. But I don’t think that intention will succeed. The U.S. is becoming the troublemaker for world peace and is exiting from international organizations like the World Health Organization. In this regard, China and Canada are on the same wavelength, upholding multilateralism and international organizations.”
That is unlikely to induce a warm, fuzzy feeling in the four out of five Canadians who hold an unfavourable view of China.
As long as Canadian citizens are arbitrarily imprisoned and used as human bargaining chips, there is unlikely to be much fondness in the relationship.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020