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John Ivison: Trudeau ruled out a prisoner swap with China but don't expect him to take harder line

The government’s preferred option for dealing with China — 
 the international pressure campaign — has not yielded results so far.
The government’s preferred option for dealing with China — the international pressure campaign — has not yielded results so far.

The emphatic nature of Justin Trudeau’s disavowal of a prisoner swap with China to free two Canadian detainees should not build expectations of a more combative approach by Ottawa.

Nobody inside the federal government expects a dramatic shift from the policy of enlisting allies to exert quiet pressure on the Chinese.

Trudeau said his government is looking at “a range of options” in its efforts to have Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor released from Chinese jails, even as he dismissed the prospects of ending the extradition process around Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou.

But the prospect of retaliatory action, such as cancelling visas for Chinese students, has also been quietly rejected. Trudeau is said to be focused on the objective of the release of the two Michaels and sees escalation as counter-productive.

There has been heavy pressure for the Liberal government to take a harder line with China. A recent poll suggested 80 per cent of Canadians think Canada should speak more forcefully about China’s defiance of international rules.

With Beijing’s public acknowledgement this week that Meng’s release could “open up space to resolution” of the detention of the two Michaels, the number of China-backers will have diminished further.

Calls for action against China have come from many quarters, including a group of senators, who would like to see sanctions imposed on Chinese officials for violation of human rights. Canada’s Magnitsky Law allows the government to impose financial restrictions on officials deemed responsible for human rights violations. Jim Munson, a Progressive senator who covered the Tiananmen Square massacre for CTV 31 years ago, called for Canada to “stand up to the bully”.

“I know the government has raised the human rights issue at every opportunity but it doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.

Yet, the government remains unconvinced that retaliatory action would work either.

Revoking student visas is a particularly thorny issue.

Canada has deep educational links with China. There were 159,000 students from mainland China studying and working in Canada last year – around a quarter of the total of international students.

The number of students seeking Chinese study permits plunged by more than 40 per cent in the first four months of this year because of COVID and chilly diplomatic relations.

But China has not directed its students to avoid Canada, as it has with Australia, to the relief of the country’s largest universities. Many Canadian institutions rely on the eye-popping tuition fees they charge international students (an average $29,716 for undergraduates; $17,744 for graduates).

Collectively, foreign students contribute $22 billion to the economy, which explains why the government has relaxed rules to continue to allow them into the country – the COVID travel ban does not apply, students can access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and they can complete 50 per cent of their studies outside Canada.

The threat to Western democracies from China’s high-tech autocracy has been laid bare

Last year, Moody’s Investor Services warned that some of Canada’s biggest universities would face a cash crunch, if China pulled its students.

Despite high profile controversies, such as the revocation of club status for the Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association at McMaster University over alleged links to the Chinese government, Ottawa is unlikely to move on student visas. This is one of the few areas it might have leverage but it doesn’t believe doing so would secure the release of the two Michaels.

The government’s preferred option — the international pressure campaign — has not yielded results either but the Chinese do not enjoy being scolded. The case of the two Michaels has revealed the Communist regime at its most despicable and China is running out of friends. When charges were laid last week, the three Baltic states expressed their disquiet, even though their interests are not threatened directly.

President Donald Trump has viewed the Meng case, in the words of his former national security adviser John Bolton, as “trade bait.”

But as Bolton makes clear in his new book, The Room Where it Happened, the broader U.S. Administration has urged Canada to stand firm and supported Ottawa’s position, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did last week when charges were laid.

The threat to Western democracies from China’s high-tech autocracy has been laid bare. The Communist Party’s hyper-nationalism threatens global rules, open markets, free trade, free speech and a coordinated response to climate change.

As Bolton pointed out, hostage diplomacy is being employed by China, even as it positions itself as a responsible stakeholder.

“How would China act as it became dominant, if we let it?” he asked.

Trudeau is not yet ready to beard the dragon in its lair but at least he no longer expresses admiration for its achievements.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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