McCallum says he tried to improve conditions for Korvig, Spavor in Chinese prison

OTTAWA — One of Canada’s most controversial ex-ambassadors to China says he repeatedly tried to improve the living conditions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after their imprisonment in the People’s Republic almost two years ago.

John McCallum also said Tuesday he regrets speaking about the October 2019 Canadian election in a meeting with Chinese officials in the months leading up to it.

McCallum, the former Liberal cabinet minister who was fired as Canada’s envoy to China in January 2019, was testifying at the special House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations.

Prime Minister fired McCallum after he made a series of public comments that broke with the government’s line following the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor.

The two men were arrested nine days after Canada’s arrest of Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant in what is widely viewed as retaliation by China.

McCallum said that’s when everything changed in Canada’s relations with China.

“From that moment onwards, the top priority of the government and of myself as ambassador was to secure the release of the two Michaels,” said McCallum, noting that he has been one of the few people to visit them in prison.

“On more than one occasion, I tried to convince the Chinese that if they were unable to release Kovrig and Spavor they should at least improve their living conditions. Sadly, as you all know, Canadian efforts in this area have so far been unsuccessful.”

The committee has been examining Canada’s relations with China, which have plummeted to an all-time low since December 2018.

Earlier Tuesday, Conservative MP Michael Chong urged Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to adopt a more consistent approach to getting tough with China.

The Conservative foreign affairs critic told Champagne during a House of Commons committee meeting Tuesday that the government needs to show Canadians how it will deal with growing Chinese intimidation of Canadians within Canada.

Chong said it is inconsistent for the government to be talking tougher on China, while Canada’s current ambassador, Dominic Barton, is making speeches about the need to broaden trade with the People’s Republic.

“I think it needs to be a lot clearer, a lot more consistent if Canada is going to have a clear, consistent voice with respect to China on the world stage,” said Chong.

Chong sponsored a motion that won approval in the Commons last week that calls on the government to decide within 30 days whether to allow China’s Huawei Technologies to supply equipment for its next generation 5G internet network. Meng is a chief executive of Huawei.

Champagne replied that Canada has taken a smart and firm approach with China lately that includes speaking out against its ill treatment of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and of ethnic Muslim Uighurs.

“Whether it comes to the Uighurs or whether it comes to Hong Kong, I’ve outlined places where we’re going to challenge China, places where we’re going to, for example, coexist with China,” Champagne said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020.

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