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COMMENTARY: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been in a Chinese jail for one year

Click to play video 'U.S. Senator says Americans should ‘go to bat’ for detained Canadians in China' U.S. Senator says Americans should ‘go to bat’ for detained Canadians in China
At the International Security Forum in Halifax on Nov. 23, Maine Senator Angus King said that the U.S. should 'go to bat' for Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are detained in China.

It will be one year this Tuesday that China has held both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor hostage.

It is an anniversary that no Canadian will celebrate and few in other western countries know much about.

The detention of the two Michaels, what China was done to try to thwart Hong Kong’s democratic protests, and the jailing of one million or more Uighur Muslims in harsh reeducation camps, have moved the needle so much that only one Canadian in 10 has a favourable view of China, according to a Nanos poll published four months ago.

Despite Canadians’ negative feelings about China, Beijing’s jailing of the two Michaels on spurious allegations, and the stiff trade sanctions that China has slapped on Canadian agricultural imports, Ottawa remains hell-bent on its China First Policy. Prominent Canadians who have had close business ties to China, such as former prime minister Jean Chretien and Ottawa’s new ambassador, Dominic Barton, continue to rally Canadian business leaders to cash in on the bonanza over there.

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READ MORE: Canadian detainees ‘absolute priority’ in meeting with China counterpart, new foreign minister says

Kovrig, a diplomat on extended leave from Global Affairs Canada and working as a senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Hong Kong was the first of the Michaels to be detained during a visit to Beijing. Not long afterwards, Spavor, a Korean-speaking entrepreneur who encourages closer cultural and business ties with North Korea, was seized in a town by Chinese authorities on the China-North Korea border. It is alleged that both Canadians had endangered China’s security.

The arrest of the two Michaels was in obvious retaliation for Canada having a few days earlier detained one of China’s most favoured daughters, Meng Wanzhou. This happened while a court in Vancouver considers whether to extradite her to the United States to face 13 bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy charges. The allegations stem from accusations that Meng, as chief financial officer of China’s largest company, Huawei, which was started by her father, had violated American sanctions against Iran.

What appears to irk Canadians most is that although no charges have been filed yet against Kovrig and Spavor, they have been held under strong lights that are never turned off with no access to their families and only monthly consular visits. At the same time Meng was swiftly granted bail and has been living in her fancy Vancouver home. Other than wearing an ankle bracelet to make sure she does not leave the city, the billionairess has been free to swan around town while her father boasts that he has more money than Ottawa.

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READ MORE: ‘Western egotism and white supremacy’ — Chinese ambassador pens op-ed on Canadian detainees

China’s former envoy to Ottawa, Lu Shaye, publicly accused Canadians of being “racists” and “white supremacists” because Meng had been stopped as she changed planes while flying from China to Mexico.

Such insults by an ambassador would usually provoke outrage and probably result in his expulsion. But Canada’s timorous response to almost anything that China says or does these days has Canada looking spineless, weak-kneed or faint-hearted. Pick your body part.

The strategy seems to be to endure any abuse that China’s Communist dictatorship hurls, lest complaining distresses Chairman Xi Jinping. Publicly rebuking China might, of course, make the two Michaels’ dreadful situation even worse. Sadly, it is hard not to conclude that of equal or greater importance to the Canadian government is that if it were to respond to China as China has to Canada, it could scupper the eternal hope of much greater trade with that country — though based on the current circumstances, this looks like a fatuous pipe dream.

READ MORE: Huawei’s CEO wants to move research centre from U.S. to Canada: report

Huawei is heavily backed by the state and has 5G cell telephone technology that it is keen to sell in Canada and elsewhere. To curry favour with Ottawa, it made a bribe of sorts last week, announcing plans to move its North American research centre from the U.S. to Ontario.

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Yet at almost the same moment China’s new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, fired another diplomatic rocket. Cong warned Canada of “very firm countermeasures” if it ordered sanctions against any officials responsible for actions against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators and the appalling treatment of Uighurs. A gloomy subtext to these outrages has been growing concern over how China might respond to Hong Kong-style civil disobedience by millions of Taiwanese if Beijing finally makes good on its longstanding promise to invade their prosperous democracy.

Click to play video 'Trump’s national security advisor gives warning about Huawei' Trump’s national security advisor gives warning about Huawei
Trump’s national security advisor gives warning about Huawei

Similar dilemmas about what to do about China are being faced today by many countries. Like Canada, others have bitten their lips and said little because of the near certainty that they would face sharp Chinese economic reprisals.

A crucial failing of the West today is that members of that privileged club have utterly failed to develop a common strategy to counter such Chinese tactics. A telling example of this collective failure is how muted western support has been for Canada since the two Michaels were rounded up 12 months ago. This has allowed China to extend a divide and conquer strategy that has already given it control over several Asian states.

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The West’s weakness provides Canada with a reasonable excuse for its inability to counter China’s over-the-top indignation at Meng’s gilded detention. But it does not explain Ottawa’s blind pursuit of closer ties with Beijing when it holds two Canadians in near total isolation.

Nor does it factor in the potential harm that may be caused by Trudeau’s blunder at being overheard dissing Donald Trump at last week’s NATO gathering. The prime minister’s posture in the video suggests that after doing so badly in the election two months ago, his Indian costume debacle last year, his three turns in blackface, and his almost total silence on China’s growing list of misdeeds, he thinks he has rediscovered his magical mojo and is back where he belongs on the world stage.

What Trudeau said apparently plays well with many Canadians, but there is no way that humiliating an American president, which was the lead story in the world for a full news cycle, is in Canada’s best interests. Such antics will certainly neither help Ottawa in its interminable trade talks in Washington nor help secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor.

Still, the case of the two Michaels might be a catalyst for Canada to provide the kind of global leadership that it has long imagined for itself. It could do so by redirecting much of its diplomatic energies to informing and promoting collective western action to resist China’s economic threats and its territorial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. One way to achieve this goal might be to give China some of its own medicine by limiting trade until and unless its dictatorship modifies its behaviour.

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There is fat chance of there being such an initiative until the situation between the West and China gets much worse. This is because western countries including Canada fret that friendly nations might get ahead of them in the China sweepstakes and therefore choose to pursue their own parochial interests.

The two Michaels and citizens from several other nations that have been similarly incarcerated on spurious charges, and about whom Canada has expressed little concern, languish in Chinese jails while captains of business and politicians still pursue the mighty yuan. They claim that doing so is a national economic imperative.

If Canada’s Chinese trade champions actually win what they seek, great. If they’re wrong, watch out. The ghastly ongoing mistreatment of the two Michaels may be a harbinger of things to come.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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