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EDITORIAL: Trudeau right to stand up to China’s bullying

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week rejected calls to swap Meng Wanzhou for two Canadians, Michael Kovric and Michael Spavor, imprisoned in China. - Reuters

First, let’s state the obvious.

China has been holding hostage two Canadians — Michael Kovric and Michael Spavor — for more than 560 days on trumped-up allegations of spying, to pressure Ottawa to intervene in an extradition case and free Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who’s wanted in the U.S. on fraud charges related to American sanctions against Iran.

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rightly refused to give in to China’s bullying.

In what should have been obvious but apparently needed to be said aloud — given an embarrassing letter from 19 former Canadian politicians, diplomats and even a former Supreme Court justice released Wednesday urging capitulation — Trudeau pointed out “no Canadian will be safe going forward” if Ottawa signalled it would bow down to the demands of hostage-takers.

As anyone who’s dealt with bullies knows, rewarding their behaviour only encourages more of the same.

China has fooled no one with its bald-faced insistence, until this past week, that Meng’s fate and that of the two Michaels were not inextricably connected.

As recently as Monday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lectured Trudeau from Beijing to “stop making irresponsible comments” suggesting the two Canadians, a former diplomat and a businessman separately picked by Chinese authorities soon after Meng’s 2018 arrest in Vancouver, were jailed in retaliation for her detainment.

Two days later, however, the same Chinese government spokesman, commenting on Canadian media reports stating Ottawa has the legal authority to end the extradition case, suggested such a move “could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”

In other words, despite China’s previous denials, the cases were indeed clearly linked.

There’s no question the wrongful imprisonment of Kovric and Spavor, only formally charged with espionage by China last week, has been a horrific ordeal for them and their families. The two have been denied access to lawyers, are reportedly being held in cells lit up all night and have not been allowed a consular visit since January.

So it was understandable when Kovric’s wife and father went public this week to urge Meng’s release.

But Wednesday’s open letter that called for Meng’s freedom, from heavyweights that included former Liberal justice minister Alan Rock, former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, among others, was a much bigger surprise.

That letter probably confused our allies, one international affairs expert told Maclean’s, and led to Trudeau’s uncharacteristically strong, but needed, rejection of their advice.

Of course, further deterioration in relations with China is now a strong possibility. The communist giant might target Canadian imports, such as lobster, with new trade barriers.

Canada must look to its allies, and all countries interested in a rules-based international system, to stand together and push back against Chinese bullying on this and other matters.

China’s continued aggression on Hong Kong, its borders in the South China Sea, intellectual property rights and other issues is hurting its standing internationally.

After all, no one likes a bully.

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