China-Canada ties irreparably damaged as bitter row at UN follows prisoner swap

A heated back-and-forth exchange between China and Canada, in the final hours of the UN General Assembly, ended with both sides accusing the other of illegal hostage-holding and “arbitrary detention”. The diplomatic clash came less than a week after the two nations announced the release of three high-profile detainees who had been at the centre of growing tensions between the countries for nearly three years.

On Friday, a Chinese tech executive – Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou – was released after being detained in Canada for nearly three years.

She returned home to Shenzen just hours after two Canadians – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, dubbed ‘the two Michaels’ – had been freed by China.

In 2018, China accused the two Michaels of espionage, and denied detaining them was in retaliation for Ms Meng’s arrest.

As the final hours of the UN General Assembly rolled on, the situation threatened to boil over as tensions rose.

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Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said: “Canada observed the rule of law, and two Canadian citizens paid a heavy price for this commitment… We continue to oppose the way these two fine people were treated.”

Ms Meng, who was kept under house arrest, had been done so with full application of “both Canadian and international law in response to a request for extradition of a Chinese citizen,” Mr Garneau said.

Later, a representative from China’s delegation to the UN General Assembly exercised the country’s right of reply, accusing the United States and Canada of keeping Meng under house arrest arbitrarily and without “legal reasons.”

Ms Meng was wanted on charges in the US but was released after a deal between Canada and US prosecutors.

Before her release, Ms Meng admitted misleading US investigators about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran.

Liu Yang, a counsellor in China’s UN mission, said: “The true purpose was to surprise Chinese high-tech enterprises and companies as a way to hold back Chinese advancement in terms of science and technology.

“The US and Canada’s action is very typical of arbitrary detention.”

China said the charges against the two Michaels was “iron-clad”, repeatedly denying their detention was related to Ms Meng in any way.

Mr Liu said Ms Meng’s case was “completely different” from that of the Canadians, insisting the two Canadians had been engaged in acts “that endanger Chinese security”.

He added: “We hope that Canada can face up to the facts squarely, correct their mistakes and draw lessons from what happened so that they do not make further mistakes.”

But it didn’t end there – Canada responded again, with a delegate saying Ms Meng had been treated with judicial independence and rule of law, and noting “she spoke outside the Vancouver courthouse to thank the court”.

Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor have maintained their innocence throughout, and critics have accused China of using them as political bargaining chips.

The representative said the Canadian citizens held in China “did not benefit from a similar degree of transparency, respect, due process or judicial independence”.

They added: “And we will continue to speak out against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations, thank you.”

Mr Liu responded one more time, saying “We cannot accept what he said”.

“Facts cannot be denied,” he said, “and laws cannot be affronted. We believe that history will have a final judgment.”

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