Politics

Kovrig is 'holding up as well as one could hope for,' says Canadian detainee's boss

After 158 days in Chinese captivity, Canadian Michael Kovrig is doing everything he can to keep his mind focused enough to avoid falling into despair and hopelessness, says his boss.

Michael Kovrig has been held in China for over five months

Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, says China is making it almost impossible for organizations to pursue a business relationship with China when it arrests Canadians 'for no good reason.' (CBC)

After 158 days in Chinese captivity, Canadian Michael Kovrig is doing everything he can to keep his mind focused enough to avoid falling into despair, says his boss.

"Over 150 days being detained. Not being able to see anyone other than his interrogators, and, once a month, Canadian consular officials. You could imagine what it would do to anyone, but he's strong and, as far as we know, he's holding up as well as one could hope for," said Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

"He's doing what I think many would have recommended him to do to be able to cope with a situation, which is not just obviously enormously stressful day to day, but without any sense of how long this is going to last. And that just adds to what would make anyone feel desperate."

In December, Canada detained Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver International Airport on an extradition request from the United States. She was later granted bail and is now awaiting court proceedings.

Shortly after Meng's arrest, two Canadian expats living in China — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — were detained by Chinese authorities. In March, China's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission accused Kovrig of stealing state secrets passed on to him by Spavor.

Spavor, who worked in North Korea, and former Canadian diplomat Kovrig, who was working with the International Crisis Group in China when he was detained, were both formally arrested Thursday.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Thursday morning that Kovrig is suspected of gathering state secrets for other countries, while Spavor is accused of stealing and illegally sharing state secrets.

Malley said today's development was expected and that the formal arrest is just as arbitrary this week as their detainment months ago.

Trudeau is asked if he'll intercede with President Xi

"I think one of the things we see increasingly around the world is that the Chinese government is not following the same kinds of rules and principles that the large majority of democracies follow in regards to rules-based order, in regards to international relations," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Paris on Thursday.

When asked if he'd call Chinese President Xi Jinping personally to protest the arrests, Trudeau said Canada is focused on "things that are going to help the Canadians being detained."

Malley also said his organization and others are not seeking a China boycott; they want to engage with China. But the Chinese regime is making it almost impossible to pursue a relationship, he said, when it detains foreigners "for no good reason," treats them they way Kovrig and Spavor are being treated, then hopes the world forgets about it.

The pair have had limited access to consular officials and are not allowed to see family or loved ones. They have been confined to single rooms without the ability to turn the lights off in their cells at night.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, who have been held for more than 150 days, were finally arrested formally in China on Thursday. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

Malley said Kovrig's colleagues at the International Crisis Group are all stepping forward and asking how they can help in the effort to get Kovrig freed — something Kovrig himself is finding encouraging.

"He's coping with it very courageously, and he knows that there are many outside that are doing everything they can to get him out," Malley said.

Kovrig's family is "fighting, they are very committed, very engaged, they are not giving up any possible pathway, and it's hard for me to even imagine being in their shoes. But they are admirable in everything they are doing to get Michael out," he said.

Since Meng's arrest, China also has placed a number of trade hurdles in front of Canadian exporters — banning imports from two canola producers, tying up shipments of pork over paperwork issues, and putting unusual obstacles in the way of Canadian soybean and pea exporters.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who just returned from a trade mission to China, said the tensions with China will only be solved by keeping dialogue open.

"Not having a conversation solves nothing," he told reporters following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

"Walking in and building a connection with each other allows you to have those kind of conversations."

According to a senior federal government source, McNeil travelled to China to meet his counterpart — Ma Xingrui, governor of Guangdong province — in an effort to smooth out some of the trade and economic tensions that have ramped up since Meng's arrest in Vancouver.

On this trade mission — McNeil's seventh trip to China — he raised the subject of the overall diplomatic tensions and Canada's specific concerns in his closed-doors meeting with Ma. The governor pointed out that Canada is stuck in this mess because of a dispute between the U.S. and China.

McNeil and Ma agreed that while their federal counterparts deal with their own issues, the regional leaders will continue to work together to ensure trade, such as Canadian seafood exports, remains protected.

With files from The Associated Press

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