OTTAWA — China has now granted Canada access to both of its recently arrested citizens — a move one former Canadian consular official sees as an encouraging sign.
In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, met with entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Sunday.
On Friday, McCallum saw detainee Michael Kovrig, who is on a leave of absence from Global Affairs.
Both men are being held for allegedly endangering China’s national security.
Global Affairs said Canadian consular officials will continue to provide services to Spavor, Kovrig and their families, but provided no other details.
It is “quite extraordinary” for Canadian officials to gain access to citizens detained in China within a matter of days, said Gar Pardy, a retired director general of the consular affairs bureau of Canada’s foreign ministry.
“The Chinese are notorious for delaying access,” he said in an interview.
“The most important issue at this point is trying to get in, and seeing them and talking to them.”
Ensuring the two Canadians are treated properly by the Chinese justice system is key, said Ben Rowswell, a former diplomat and current president of the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan think-tank.
“That’s really the short-term imperative for Canada, is to secure due process for those two and ideally a release.”
Spavor and Kovrig were taken into custody just days after Canadian authorities in Vancouver arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive with Chinese firm Huawei Technologies, so she can be extradited to the U.S. to face fraud charges.
Experts note Canada had no choice but to make the arrest, given its extradition treaty with the United States.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt whatsoever that this is straight retaliation that is playing out here,” Pardy said of the arrests of the two Canadians. “Even when the Chinese comment about all this, you can almost see the smile on their face when they say, ‘No, no, no, these are national security concerns.'”
Spavor is director of the Paektu Cultural Exchange and one of the few people from the West to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He also helped arrange a visit to North Korea by former basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Kovrig served as a diplomat in China until 2016 and has been working for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental agency.
Rowswell said he is familiar with Kovrig’s work, having served in Canada’s foreign ministry at the same time as him.
“I certainly read his reports and respected him, and knew that he was an admired colleague and a very serious player as well — not someone who would get up to any activities that would warrant him being thrown in jail,” Rowswell said.
He also noted the International Crisis Group has an open and transparent relationship with China.
“That’s not a great way to build trust in international relationships — to hold citizens of a country hostage to any dispute that might happen between the two national governments. Because disputes will always happen. They’ll come and go. That’s a normal feature of international relations,” Rowswell said.
“Almost every international organization must now be wondering, ‘If China is unhappy with us, will they be arresting our employees the next time they go to Beijing or Shanghai?'”
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Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press