The government of China already has a public-relations problem in Metro Vancouver—and it's only going to get worse when the owners of a local winery go on trial later this week in Shanghai on allegations of smuggling.
John Chang and Allison Lu own the Lulu Island Winery, which is being operated by their 23-year-old daughter Amy. That's because her dad, a Taiwanese immigrant and a Canadian citizen, has been kept in jail in China for more than a year. Her mom was released from prison in January but is forbidden from leaving China until the trial takes place.
According to a legal brief prepared by the law firm Fasken Martineau, "China Customs incarcerated and charged Mr. Chang and Ms. Lu with smuggling and then spent the next 10 months seeking to obtain evidence to substantiate the charge."
The legal brief, which was sent to the Canadian government, maintains that the arrest and incarceration of the couple "is on its face outrageous and unconscionable" and is a "violation of China's basic international trade obligations".
"The excessive power of China Customs to unilaterally jail the owners of a reputable Canadian business on a mere allegation of non-compliance with customs valuation rules and to detain them in jail for more than 1-year without hearing or any meaningful recourse to justice is a gross violation of personal liberty and security," the law firm stated.
It maintained that China Customs has breached the UN general assembly's "body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under A Form of Detention of Imprisonment".
And the law firm has called on senior Canadian government officials to "secure the immediate release of Mr. Chang from detention and permission for both Mr. Chang and Ms. Lu to return to Canada pending a resolution of their valuation dispute".
China's president won't respect rule of law
Amnesty International has expressed a dim view of China's legal system.
"Shortcomings in domestic law and systemic problems in the criminal justice system resulted in widespread torture and other ill-treatment and unfair trials," the group states on its website. "The authorities increasingly used 'residential surveillance in a designated location', a form of secret incommunicado detention that allowed the police to hold individuals for up to six months outside the formal detention system, without access to legal counsel of their choice, their families or anybody else from the outside world, and placed suspects at risk of torture and other ill-treatment."
China has tried to make the case that it's interested in developing a robust legal system.
A flattering 2015 biography of China's president by two professors and three Chinese journalists, The Xi Jinping Era; His Comprehensive Strategy Toward the China Dream, went on at length about how Xi was serious about introducing the rule of law to his country.
But a more recent crackdown on human rights lawyers suggests that Xi doesn't really view this as a priority.
"Activists and human rights defenders continued to be systematically subjected to monitoring, harassment, intimidation, arrest and detention," Amnesty International declared.
China doesn't reveal how many people it executes a year. That's a state secret. But it's believed to vastly eclipse the number of state-ordered executions in any other country.
The arrests and pending trial of Chang and Lu must be seen in this context. They're in a dreadfully perilous situation, even if they did misreport financial information to customs officials, which still hasn't been proven.
In Canada if there's a debate over customs fees, nobody is put in prison pending the outcome of an administrative review.
But in China, two Canadians exporting products to China were thrown in jail despite China being a member of the World Trade Organization and promising to uphold its provisions.
What's worse is that the Trudeau government doesn't appear to be able to liberate these Canadians, even though one of its former senior ministers, John McCallum, is now Canada's ambassador to China.
After becoming prime minister, Trudeau spent a week in China ingratiating himself to Chinese leaders.
“I believe my official visit to China has placed the Canada-China relationship on a renewed and stable track that will foster greater economic and social benefits for both our peoples, especially the middle class," Trudeau said at the time.
Try telling that to to Chang and Lu, who are stuck in China as pawns in President Xi's high-profile campaign against corruption.
What can Metro Vancouver residents do?
The Xi Jinping Era documented how important it was to Xi to appear to be addressing the national scourge of corruption.
There are great propaganda advantages for Xi if a Taiwanese-born Canadian businessman and his wife are put on trial for something that smells of financial swindling. It's the type of move that could bolster Xi's standing as a corruption fighter in advance of a crucial party congress.
Lulu Island Winery is in the riding of Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido. If this situation isn't resolved satisfactorily, it could cost his seat in the next federal election.
The root of the problem is that Xi doesn't worry about western public opinion. This can be traced back to the horrible treatment of Xi's family during China's Cultural Revolution, when there was barely a whimper of protest among western intellectuals.
Xi's father was a senior Communist party official under Chairman Mao Zedong. But after Xi Zhongxun was purged, he was beaten, imprisoned, and forced to march around in public as an enemy of the people. He was later forced to work in a factory. Xi's sister died in the chaos of the era.
Xi Zhongxun was rehabilitated under Deng Xiaoping and played a major role in the explosion of commercial activities in Guangong province in the 1980s.
Nowadays, Xi Jinping has little time for westerners who protest against his government's human-rights record.
So what can be done?
A good start would be a consumer boycott of anything that comes from China until Chang and Lu are freed. Noisy protests outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street could also drive home the point that China should put these two Canadians on a plane so they can return to Richmond.
In addition, it's worth writing letters to Conservative trade critic Gerry Ritz and NDP deputy finance critic Nathan Cullen, who've both spoken publicly about this case.
It might also be helpful to email independent Canadian senator Yuen Pau Woo at email@example.com. Woo is a former CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and has a deep understanding of China.
It's no guarantee of justice. But at least a family that's suffering as a result of Chinese government tyranny can take solace that some people in their community cared enough to try to bring them home.