Of the many dozens of cases, only a few get strong or lasting attention. When Christian aid workers Julia and Kevin Garratt were arrested by Chinese officials in 2014 and accused of spying, their plight sparked widespread international outcry.
But the friends and family of many other detained Canadians have struggled and failed to put their names in the spotlight.
International treaties and protocols can make it extremely tricky for Ottawa to intervene effectively on behalf of many of these individuals, said Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. He said an enormous portion of his time was devoted to trying to help incarcerated Canadians.
Some were Canadians of Chinese origin who entered China using Chinese documentation. Under the Vienna Convention, Beijing can deny consular access or visitation rights in these situations.
In other cases, Canadian officials have been confronted with a vast gulf between Chinese and Canadian judicial standards, leaving communities mystified and families desperate for answers as their loved ones remain out of contact.
Governments need to step up their warnings to citizens travelling to China, said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch.
“I think they have to admit that if their citizens are detained in China, there are more circumstances in which it appears that there is little those governments might be able to do to ensure people’s release. And that’s a pretty frightening reality,” Richardson told StarMetro.
Following the high-profile arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, Canadians Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor and Sarah McIver were detained in a move widely condemned as political retaliation by rights groups.
But even in the majority of cases, where political retaliation isn’t in question, Saint-Jacques said, China needs to improve its justice system dramatically before Canada can have absolute faith in its outcomes.
“In the Chinese system, they can detain you and go through an interrogation phase, and it’s at the end of that that they decide whether they will formally arrest you and formally charge you,” he said.
“99.9 per cent of the time, you’re found guilty.”
Here are just a few worrying cases regarding Canadians and those with strong Canadian ties:
Celil was visiting his wife’s family in Uzbekistan in 2006. He had entered the country on a Canadian passport but was arrested by local police and sent to China at the request of Chinese authorities.
Celil, a practicing Uyghur Muslim from the Xinjiang province of China, had been jailed in China in the mid-1990s for broadcasting a call to prayer through a megaphone. He entered Canada in 2001 to seek asylum and obtained his citizenship four years later.
Chinese officials denied Canada consular access to Celil, telling Ottawa he had been travelling on his Chinese papers. Saint-Jacques calls this claim “preposterous.”
Not only does Chinese law clearly state obtaining foreign citizenship automatically annuls Chinese citizenship, “we know that he was travelling with his Canadian passport,” he told StarMetro.
According to Celil’s former lawyer, Christopher MacLeod, it is still unclear what, exactly, Celil was charged with. There was talk of both terrorism charges and charges of being a separatist, he said. But because neither he nor anyone else was ever permitted to visit Celil — or even enter the courtroom during his trial — his situation remains obscured.
In fact, he said, the opacity of Celil’s situation has meant MacLeod acts less as a lawyer for Celil than as a guide to help his family keep his story “front and centre” in the Canadian political sphere.
“He’s been forgotten,” MacLeod said.
Celil’s original sentence — death — was eventually commuted in 2016 to 20 years further imprisonment.
Sun Qian, a Chinese-born Canadian citizen and Falun Gong practitioner, was arrested in Beijing in early 2017 for allegedly “using heretical religious organizations to disrupt the implementation of law,” according to a 2018 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from a group of attorneys. The charge, according to the letter, is a common accusation levelled “unjustly” against practitioners of Falun Gong in China.
According to The Globe and Mail, lawyers connected to Sun have been variously told to drop the case by their law firms or by Chinese authorities, visited in their homes by police, ordered not to speak to media about Sun or had their legal licences cancelled.
The attorneys’ letter further states that Sun’s charges and detention do not reflect a legal system concerned with regular procedure and just outcomes but rather reveal a judiciary bent to support an authoritarian party using “whatever means to consolidate their ruling” against the perceived threat of a religious minority.
In 1979, Wang was one of the first Chinese people to study medicine abroad at a Canadian university. He completed his doctorate in pathology at McGill in 1982 but soon put aside his medical career to focus on promoting political reform in his home country.
His daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, remembers seeing little of her father when she was growing up in Montreal because he frequently visited China. He was banned from entering the country around 1983 but continued to go to Asia for advocacy work.
While his wife and four children all obtained Canadian citizenship, Wang refused to do so because he felt it would be hypocritical to turn his back on China.
He co-founded two opposition parties, the Chinese Freedom Democracy Party and Chinese Democracy Justice Party in 1989 and 1998 — which raised the ire of Chinese authorities. In 2002, during a visit to Vietnam, Chinese agents abducted Wang and forcibly brought him to China, according to various international rights groups including Amnesty International.
Fifteen years later, Wang continues to serve a life sentence for espionage and terrorism. Ti-Anna says he has remained in solitary confinement and wardens have told the family this is because he is the only political prisoner in their facility.
She credits international attention for the medical care her father has received for his severe asthma and for several strokes he has suffered, but she worries his mental health is failing after being isolated for so long.
“I think a big fear of my father’s is that his life was wasted, and we feel like bringing awareness to his work makes sure his sacrifice wasn’t in vain,” she told StarMetro.
John Chang and Allison Lu
The owners of Lulu Island Winery in Richmond, B.C. were arrested while on a business trip in Shanghai in March 2016, accused of under-reporting the value of imported ice wine.
Taiwan-born Chang immigrated to Canada in 1995 and began making wine in 2007. He has remained in a Chinese detention facility since the arrest, while Lu, his wife, was released earlier this year on condition that she does not leave China. Her Canadian passport has been confiscated. The current status of legal proceedings in Shanghai is unclear.
Their daughter, 25-year-old Amy Chang, is now running the family business in her parents’ absence. The winery has appealed to the Canadian government and argued this is a matter of national interest because a lengthy detention on allegations is a violation of China’s international trade obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has expressed “deep concern” about the couple’s situation.
Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-born Canadian billionaire connected to some of the country’s most powerful families, was spirited out from his Hong Kong hotel apartment in a wheelchair by Chinese police in January 2017.
His removal from semi-independent Hong Kong appeared to contravene the “one country, two systems” rule that allows the former British colony to run its own affairs, sparking fears of an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy by Beijing. Mainland law-enforcement agencies are prohibited from operating in Hong Kong.
Xiao underwent a pretrial meeting in Shanghai earlier this fall and is expected to be charged with bribery and stock price manipulation, according to media reports. Saint-Jacques said Ottawa has lobbied China on behalf of Xiao but to little avail.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer
Joanna Chiu is assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu