‘They are in no hurry’: Beijing plays the long game as Canadians languish in China’s prisons

Click to play video: 'Hostage Diplomacy: The forgotten Canadian imprisoned in China'
Hostage Diplomacy: The forgotten Canadian imprisoned in China
WATCH ABOVE: The detention and secretive trials of the two Michaels in China have made international headlines, but there are more than 100 Canadians being held there. That includes Huseyin Celil, who was imprisoned more than 15 years ago after speaking out on behalf of the Uyghur Muslim minority – May 8, 2021

The “Two Michaels,” Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have garnered international attention. Their arrests in December 2018 were widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou by the RCMP in Vancouver at the behest of the United States.

But when Kamila Telendibaeva hears the Michaels’ names mentioned repeatedly by political leaders and journalists, she has mixed emotions.

“I feel sorry for the Michaels, I feel really sorry,” she says. “But when I hear the Michaels’ case, I always think: ‘Where’s Huseyin’s case? Why they don’t want to bring it up? Why they don’t want to raise it?’ It hurts. He’s a Canadian.”

Kamila’s husband, Huseyin Celil, is a Canadian from Burlington, Ont., whose imprisonment by Beijing is now entering its 16th year.

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Celil is a Uyghur Muslim arrested in 2006 in Uzbekistan, where he was visiting his wife’s family. He was then taken to China. Canadian consular officials were unable to block his extradition and Celil has been locked up in China ever since, his exact whereabouts unknown.

Beijing has not granted him a single consular visit in all of that time. His case has garnered far less attention in recent years and is largely unknown to Canadians.

His wife, who has had to raise four children on her own in Canada, can’t even say with certainty if he is alive. Fifteen years since she last saw her husband and her children’s father, she says she still breaks down and cries every day.

“What’s going on with my husband? I have no idea,” Kamila Telendibaeva told Global News. “Something is missing in my life.”

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“I think Huseyin Celil’s case is absolutely one of the most egregious, if not the most egregious instance, of long-term imprisonment of a Canadian citizen on completely unjust grounds, that has gone on far, far too long,” says Alex Neve, former secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, who has been watching the Celil case for years and calls it “beyond belief.”

“One day of unjust imprisonment in these circumstances would be too much. Fifteen years, and however many days that amounts to, is beyond belief.”

Celil and his family came to Canada as refugees in 2001, and became Canadian citizens shortly thereafter. Celil was a forceful advocate for Uyghur rights, and had challenged the Chinese government on its alleged treatment of the minority Uyghur population in the far-western province of Xinjiang. China had even jailed him before, in the 1990s, for his outspokenness.

Telendibaeva says her husband’s only “crime” was being vocal in a country where speaking out can quickly land a person in jail.

“He didn’t hurt anyone, any Chinese, or any human being,” she says. “He just had strong speech.”

China accuses some members of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang of being separatists, and has launched a protracted campaign to assimilate the Uyghur community and culture, according to human rights organizations, researchers, and a handful of journalists who have managed to report from the far-western frontier region.

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Beijing vociferously denies those allegations, accusing western nations of making claims that are not grounded in evidence or that are based on “unknown sources.”

On Twitter, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, counters that China treats the Uyghur population quite well, sharing posts that purportedly show peaceful development in the very region of China where some Uyghurs, human rights groups and western governments allege human rights abuses are happening.

Dual nationals

According to experts whom Global News spoke with, there are roughly 100 Canadians detained in China, facing a range of charges. Most of those detainees, like Celil, are dual nationals; China does not recognize dual nationality.

As far as Beijing is concerned, Celil is a Chinese national, subject to Chinese laws and the Chinese justice system. That complicates efforts to secure his release, both in terms of China’s refusal to see him as anything other than Chinese, but also, says Neve, in terms of the relative lack of attention his case has garnered in Canada.

“Dual national Canadians often feel like they aren’t given as much high-level concern and attention as Canadians who don’t have dual nationality,” Neve says. “We just don’t see their cases rise to the top of the list, and it’s impossible to deny that to a certain degree, there’s an aspect of racism that underlies that.”

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During the 2015 election campaign, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau famously asserted that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” But, Neve says, “I don’t think that always translates into the nature and seriousness of the action we see from the Canadian government in these kinds of cases.”

In February 2020, Canada’s then newly appointed ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, struggled to remember the case of Huseyin Celil when asked about it at a House of Commons committee meeting. Barton had to be corrected when he stated that Celil was not a Canadian citizen (he is).

‘Even less incentive to do anything’

In the absence of successful efforts by Western governments to secure the release of their citizens in China and elsewhere, some individuals have stepped forward to nudge foreign countries toward leniency.

John Kamm is one of those people — a former chemical salesman-turned China human rights defender who has advocated for thousands of people caught up in the Chinese legal juggernaut.

Kamm heads up a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization called The Dui Hua Foundation. Dui Hua means “dialogue” in Chinese. “In the 30-plus years I’ve been doing my prisoner work, it’s never been easy, but it has rarely been more difficult,” he told Global News, referring to the current state of relations between China and the West.

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Kamm worries that relations between Canada and China are so bad at the moment that Beijing has “even less incentive to do anything” right now. That does not bode well for any of the Canadians who are imprisoned in China. “To state the obvious, the Chinese judicial system is opaque. We don’t know very often why they do certain things.”

He says that patience, persistence and a respectful tone have been the keys to success in communicating with Chinese officials, and securing concessions for hundreds of prisoners. “I am very respectful,” he told Global News, in reference to countless letters he has sent Chinese on behalf of imprisoned foreigners. “Sometimes I don’t get answers, but a lot of the times I do.”

In terms of the Celil case, Kamm says the best strategy is to leverage the negative international attention China is receiving over its alleged treatment of the Uyghur population, in order to call for his release.

“What I would do is say, ‘Hey, you have said that the Uyghurs are being well-treated. … Well, how about releasing a high-profile Uyghur prisoner? That would be good.’”

He says this approach serves Beijing’s interests, and does not bend to its demands, either. “You look at what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, what they want, and then you make your pitch based on that knowledge. It’s no different from any other transaction. Find out what they want and use that to your advantage.”

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China rising

China’s economic power has become unmistakable since ascending to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and developing a full-fledged market economy in the two decades since. In business, in politics and in military superiority in the South China Sea, China is clearly flexing its muscles, and not being shy about it.

“This is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” says Jeremy Paltiel, a China expert at Carleton University in Ottawa, whose first foray into China was in the 1970s. “Xi Jinping, like many other Chinese, believes that China underwent a century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949” — and that now it is roaring back, and not apologizing for it.

But Paltiel says that to see China in the context of “friend or foe” is an overly simplistic approach. “I think that’s a false dichotomy,” he says. “China can be both different and not an enemy.” This nuanced understanding, Paltiel says, helps countries like Canada that are grappling with thorny issues, including human rights.

“Our approach to human rights (in the West),” Paltiel says, “is through the individual. That is to say, if one individual is treated badly … that means that no one’s rights are safe.” In China, human rights are seen in the context of the whole. “They would say, ‘Look at how many people we lifted out of poverty. Why are you worrying about this one person?’”

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The key to a successful Canada-China relationship, Paltiel says, is to be mindful of differences, without necessarily agreeing with or accepting them. Understanding, he says, is not the same thing as pardoning.

“We have to be able to find a way of talking across difference without defining ‘difference’ as being ‘enemy,’” Paltiel says. “And if we can’t do that, we can’t live in a diverse world.”

See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online at

This story is part of our CuriousCast podcast series called China Rising, which explores China’s growing global dominance and relationship with Canada.

You can listen to China Rising for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music or wherever you get your favourite podcasts.

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