New Chinese ambassador doesn’t budge on detainees, Hong Kong during press conference

It’s still up to Canada to mend fences if it wants better relations with China, the country’s new ambassador to Canada suggested today during his first official press conference in Canada.

Cong Peiwu also warned Canadian parliamentarians not to follow the lead of the U.S. Congress in seeking to sanction Chinese officials over their handling of the Hong Kong crisis.

Cong took questions at China’s embassy in Ottawa today. Reporters were free to ask whatever they wanted, though there was no opportunity for follow-up questions.

Overall, Cong presented an impression of continuity with the previous ambassador, Lu Shaye — and offered no indication of movement in Beijing’s position on either the two Canadians detained in China or the dramatic situation in Hong Kong.

Defending detentions

Cong began his remarks by talking about the economic advances China has made over seven decades of Communist Party rule. He described China as the main motor of growth in the world’s GDP and the nation that has lifted the largest number of people out of poverty.

He also talked about China’s commitment to be more open to the world — although he described that openness in strictly economic and business terms.

He spoke about China’s desire to have friendly relations with other countries, including Canada, but stressed that those relations would have to be conditioned on “mutual respect” and “equality” among nations.

“We believe that the countries should live in harmony, and treat each other as equals in this community of the world, just as President Xi Jinping has been pointing out,” he said.

CBC News asked Cong about China’s treatment of Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being held in solitary confinement while Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — taken into custody by the RCMP on an American warrant — is able to spend her pre-trial period in one of her two Vancouver homes.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, were taken into custody by Chinese officials. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

“We have always stressed that (the Meng case) is by no means a purely judicial case,” said the ambassador, “but instead a very serious political incident plotted by the United States.

“And for Canada, it has abused its treaty of extradition between Canada and the United States, and arbitrarily detained [Meng Wanzhou], which violates her legitimate rights.”

Cong said that Kovrig and Spavor were “engaged in suspected activities endangering national security of China. But there is nothing like arbitrary detention.

“These two cases they are very much different in nature. Meng Wanzhou’s case is arbitrary detention by the Canadian side. For those two Canadian citizens there is no arbitrary arrest at all. So that’s my answer.”

No dialogue on Hong Kong

Asked about the possibility that China might be open to a dialogue with the Hong Kong protest movement, Cong replied that the protesters were “violent and radical criminals.”

“Supporting the Hong Kong police in strictly enforcing the law, and supporting the Hong Kong judiciary in bringing those criminals to justice according to law, that’s our position. And we are determined to safeguard our national sovereignty, our core interests, our security and development interests, and we are determined to oppose any foreign intervention.”

Cong said that any voices in Canada calling on Beijing to respect the principle of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong are misguided, insisting China has respected that commitment since 1997 and continues to do so.

A protester is detained by riot police while attempting to leave the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) during clashes with police in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

And he was sharply critical of legislation that passed almost unanimously through the U.S. Congress yesterday, setting up potential sanctions for Chinese officials involved in suppressing Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, if signed into law by President Trump, would also require the State Department to certify annually that Beijing is still respecting its commitment to the “one country, two systems” principles under which the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Warning shot at Canada

Cong warned that Canada would be unwise to follow the U.S. example.

“If somebody here is really trying to push the decision to have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous, we would certainly be firmly opposed to that,” he said. “And if anything happens like this, we would suddenly have very bad damage to our bilateral relationship. And that’s not in the interests of Canada.”

This morning, President Donald Trump told the Fox News show Fox & Friends that he was considering vetoing the U.S. legislation.

“We have to stand with Hong Kong,” the president said, “but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy, but we have to stand … I’d like to see them work it out, okay?” 

Trump has until the end of the month to decide whether he will sign the bill, but the overwhelming strength of the bill’s majorities in both houses suggests that any presidential veto probably would be blocked.

No such law is currently under consideration in Canada, but Canada already has a law — the Magnitsky Act — that could be used to sanction Chinese officials.

Huawei: ‘No back doors’

The Hong Kong democracy bill was one of two setbacks China suffered this week in the United States.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to ban companies that use equipment and services from either Huawei or Chinese tech company ZTE from accessing U.S. government broadband subsidies.

Though not strictly speaking a ban, the move eliminates any cost advantages the Chinese firms may have enjoyed in the U.S., making it very difficult for them to sell into that market.

“They are mobilizing their national resources to try to cover, to contain the obvious development [of Chinese technology], and its intention actually is trying to pin down our high tech industry,” said Cong.

“As you can see, some senior officials of the United States, wherever they travel they will say something very negative against Huawei, and claiming Huawei is posing a security threat to the country they are visiting without providing any evidence.”

“Actually it’s those countries which have the PRISM program who have used these kinds of things to spy and have this surveillance, large-scale impact on foreign countries and companies.”

PRISM is the code name of a U.S. surveillance program, exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, that conducted massive eavesdropping operations in foreign countries.

Cong suggested foreign countries would be safer installing Chinese equipment. 

“There’s nothing like back door devices being installed by Huawei,” said the ambassador. “So that’s a groundless accusation.

“So we do hope that the Canadian side will provide a fair, just and a non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies.”

A message to the Trudeau government

Cong closed his remarks with what sounded like a message for the new Trudeau government.

Talking about the past year of “twists and turns, even setbacks” in the relationship, Cong said “we do hope that the Canadian side will reflect on what has happened and take concrete measures to push our relationship back to the normal track. So that’s the task for the government.

“And we do hope that those important people in the new cabinet will play an active role in making sure that relations of our two countries return to their normal track on the basis of mutual respect and equality.”

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