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The flag of the People's Republic of China flies at the Embassy of China in Ottawa, on Nov. 22, 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Irwin Cotler is former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, and Canadian co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

“Vile, unconscionable and evil.”

These are the words the Chinese government used to describe Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, pursuant to an extradition treaty request, after which she was freed on bail with access to family, counsel, media and an independent judiciary. But those words might be better reserved for Xi Jinping’s hostage diplomacy and arbitrary detention of Canadians.

While China eventually released the unjustly detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – who, it should be said, were held for nearly three years without access to family, counsel, media or an independent judiciary, until they were coincidentally freed on the same day as Ms. Meng returned to China – other innocent Canadians continue to be unjustly detained and even tortured in Chinese prisons. Canadian Uyghur-rights activist Huseyin Celil, whose case I took up as a parliamentarian in 2006 when he was first abducted and arbitrarily detained, has been imprisoned for 16 years, and has effectively been “forcibly disappeared.” Canadian businesswoman and Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian is now two years into an eight-year sentence imposed after Chinese Communist Party authorities forced her to renounce her Canadian citizenship; her lawyers were repeatedly harassed and themselves detained.

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And now, Mr. Xi is adding yet another Canadian to the growing list of victims: Canadian businessman Xiao (James) Jianhua.

Kidnapped from his Hong Kong hotel room in 2017, Mr. Xiao has been arbitrarily detained for nearly 2,000 days. Recently, he resurfaced in a Shanghai courtroom, where he faced a closed-door trial on trumped-up charges. China’s use of such “sham trials” – where the conviction rate consistently stands at 99 per cent – is well-documented. Mr. Xiao’s conviction is effectively inevitable, as is his suffering throughout his detention.

What has been vile, unconscionable and evil has been China’s brutal repression of the targets that it sometimes calls the “five poisons.” It has committed mass atrocities against the Uyghurs (which the Canadian Parliament was the first in the world to call acts of genocide); launched a frontal assault on democracy in Hong Kong; persecuted and prosecuted practitioners of Falun Gong; repressed Tibet and menaced Taiwan. But then there is also China’s imprisonment of more journalists – and the lawyers who would represent them – than any other country in the world. The list of examples goes on and on.

The growing transnational repression by the Chinese Communist Party – including the criminal harassment and intimidation of Canadians – is on the rise, and it highlights the dangers of indifference and inaction regarding such practices. Tolerance has allowed such internal repression to metastasize into external hostility, and what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has described as the “aggressive targeting” of Canadians by Chinese intelligence services, on Canadian soil.

Canada has taken an important step in combatting this by spearheading the Declaration of Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations; the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has also been marshalling a global response to combat the pernicious practices by China.

But China’s arbitrary detentions, hostage diplomacy and assault on the rules-based international order warrant even more initiatives.

Canada should prioritize the combatting of arbitrary detentions as a matter of principle and policy, including the appointment of a special envoy for that purpose. Canada, like so many other democracies, has regrettably become a destination for both the goods produced by the slave labour of targeted groups, and for the ill-gotten gains of those who oppress them. New legislation and regulation can challenge both. Indeed, ensuring that Bill S-211 – An Act to Enact the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act and to Amend the Customs Tariff – is adopted upon the return of Parliament would be an important contribution to ending Canadian complicity in slavery.

Further, targeted Magnitsky sanctions should be imposed on Chinese Communist Party officials allegedly involved in major human-rights abuses, including those responsible for the arbitrary detention of Canadians such as Mr. Xiao.

Taking meaningful action to address this repression by Xi Jinping’s China is important. By doing so, Canada can send a signal of hope to all victims, including our unlawfully detained citizens. No one should be targeted for who they are, for what they believe, or for what their citizenship represents. Canada should continue to pursue justice, to combat injustice, and to be a source of hope and inspiration in the darkest moments of this fight.

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