Chrystia Freeland says Canadians detained in China are top priority

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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has assured the daughter of a couple detained in China that Ottawa is working hard to persuade Beijing to allow them to return home.

Canadian winery owners John Chang and Allison Lu have been trapped in Shanghai since March, 2016, when Chinese authorities accused them of failing to pay sufficient duties on wine shipments.

Since their arrest, Mr. Chang has been in a Shanghai prison. Ms. Lu was released from prison in January, but her passport has been confiscated and she has been barred from leaving China.

Their daughter, Amy Chang, who has been on a vigil in Ottawa hoping to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had an hour long-meeting with Ms. Freeland on Thursday.

“She did say she would make this the top of her priorities, which I am very appreciative, and she said the government was working very hard to get my father out of prison and my parents back home to Canada,” Ms. Chang told The Globe and Mail. “It was comforting because it at least shows me the government is on top of it and they know my parents’ file.”

Ms. Chang said Ms. Freeland was sympathetic to her family’s plight, but added she still wanted to meet Mr. Trudeau in the hope he can get action from China’s top leaders.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who met separately with Ms. Chang on Wednesday, have urged Mr. Trudeau to intervene personally.

“John Chang, who is in failing health, and Allison Lu, have been detained in China for 15 months,” Mr. Scheer told the Commons on Thursday. “They are Canadian citizens who require help from their government, and the Chinese community in Canada is very concerned.”

Mr. Mulcair said the Prime Minister must call Beijing and demand the couple’s freedom. “It is a dispute over the value of a bottle of wine and they get thrown into jail. Come on, Mr. Trudeau has to intervene. It doesn’t make any sense at all,” he told reporters.

The Prime Minister’s Office has repeatedly declined to say whether Mr. Trudeau will meet with Ms. Chang.

The case has raised new questions about the Liberal government’s pursuit of a free-trade deal with China – a country that does not have an independent justice system and where graft and corruption are common.

“Mr. Trudeau explains all the time why we should be more open with China, that we can do business there … but you know what? It is still a dictatorship and it doesn’t have the rule of law,” Mr. Mulcair said. “You can be put in jail if somebody disagrees with your evaluation of a bottle of wine. That is bonkers.”

The Canada China Business Council (CCBC) said the couple’s situation underlines the need for a bilateral free-trade deal to help clarify the rules so Canadians do not get caught up in the Chinese justice system.

CCBC executive director Sarah Kutulakos expressed sympathy for Ms. Chang’s family but reminded Canadian businesses to follow the rules very carefully abroad.

“I wouldn’t say that the case should sour Canadian companies on selling to China, but it is a good reminder that following Chinese laws and regulations, to the letter of the law, is important,” Ms. Kutulakos told The Globe and Mail.

“It is not uncommon for someone to be told that it’s okay to do things differently than the regulations specify, that everyone does it. That may be so, but when there are severe consequences for getting caught, it doesn’t matter if everyone else did it when you’re the one who got caught.”

Conservative MP Gerry Ritz was critical of the CCBC’s stand, saying he tried to call them to enlist their help with Ms. Chang’s family but was rebuffed.

“They put out [a statement] that was less than helpful saying that you have to play by [China’s] rules, basically saying, you know, [the council is] out of it. That’s unfortunate,” he said.

Mr. Chang and Ms. Lu faced a criminal trial in Shanghai last week, accused of understating the value of their wine. No verdict has yet been rendered, but China’s legal system has a conviction rate of 99.6 per cent.

China say the couple owes Beijing nearly $20-million and has seized 267,000 bottles of their wine; the maximum punishment is life in prison and a fine up to five times the amount owed.

At the trial last week, a former employee of the couple’s winery testified that he warned his bosses years ago that they needed to raise the price they were declaring to Chinese customs. The winery said the employee was fired for stealing and Mr. Chang said he had placed his trust in Chinese expertise to navigate a customs system he did not know well.

In 2015, Mr. Chang was named an RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant award winner.

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