‘The mission is done’: With the two Michaels released, Canada’s ambassador to China is ready to move on

Diplomatic victory – not political one – said Chrystia Freeland, the UN high commissioner for human rights

‘The mission is done’: With the two Michaels released, Canada’s ambassador to China is ready to move on

The visit by the disgraced former Liberal MP Jane Philpott to China was for one purpose only – to secure the release of John Manley, Canada’s former ambassador to China, and “Peter X”, both languishing in the hands of Chinese authorities.

Philpott, who announced she was retiring this week, could have looked forward to setting up her new diplomatic mission on the other side of the globe in an embassy well away from the hubbub of Beijing.

Neither Manley nor X (who was given a one-year suspended sentence in February) has been publicly identified since they were arrested by Chinese authorities in December.

Until now, however, Freeland insisted on this trip being for nothing else. The prime minister was to give the pair “top priority”.

“The mission is done,” Freeland told the packed press conference, just outside the cavernous Liaoning provincial provincial parliament in Nanchang.

Freeland, speaking after after Phebe, Phebe and X (all referred to in Chinese media as “Philpott”), insisted the visit had been not just about securing the release of former diplomats but the last steps before the scheduled launch of Beijing’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

“The China-Canada dialogue will build the success of the WTO-M20 negotiation round,” she said.

Freeland, who hopes she will return to China in 2020, revealed the negotiations for that WTO bid had progressed, with the two sides already discussing a proposed “trade corridor” that would run north to east across the border in the North China Sea.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has already requested an audience with Trudeau after the M20 general meeting in July.

Chrystia Freeland’s mission to China has been successful – but a hollow victory | Andrew Kragie Read more

The two diplomats were released after almost a week behind bars, during which officials could not say why they were being held or give details of any charges against them. Neither was allowed access to their families.

Exasperated Canadian officials have made clear China’s failure to clear the diplomats’ cases, despite having earlier indicated they would not be held for more than a week, was endangering ongoing commercial deals and diplomatic negotiations.

Beijing went so far as to suggest the Canadian diplomats were not helping their efforts by refusing to be interrogated.

At least two Chinese judges also travelled to meet the freed former diplomats, but Chinese state media has all but rebuffed suggestions the visits were a quid pro quo.

“From [Chinese state media’s] perspective, it is important the diplomats are not allowed to talk to each other,” the Global Times said.

Phebe noted that former ambassadors were used to temporarily serving in Beijing, but she and X had been detained on an “indefinite detention” without explanation.

X, who said he had previously been allowed to read texts for one hour each day, told Freeland he had not yet had access to any messages.

An irritated Freeland replied: “This is a lesson in how to detain Canadians in China.”

At the end of the press conference, Freeland revealed how she had recently discovered a new mission.

“For me,” she said, “this is now not about day-to-day operations as Canadian ambassador, but I’m looking forward to being able to take on this challenge to help end discrimination against LGBTQ people and Canadians around the world, a space I have been very closely involved in.”

• This article was amended on 24 June 2018. An earlier version said that Chrystia Freeland had been urged to focus on the World Trade Organisation rather than focus on bringing former diplomats home.

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