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Calling China an 'important ally,' Baird turns cold shoulder to fugitive

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird meets the press with his counterpart in Beijing, Yang Jiechi, on July 18, 2011.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in Beijing to warm ties, has signalled the Harper government feels little sympathy for Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing.

Mr. Lai's case has dogged relations between Beijing and Ottawa for more than a decade, as the Chinese fugitive fought his extradition, arguing he would be executed or abused if he's returned home.

But after four years of quiet in his case, Canadian immigration authorities opined last week that he would not be mistreated if sent back to China. The government moved quickly deport him until a court order issued last Wednesday stalled the efforts.

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The movement in the case occurred just before Mr. Baird travelled to China for his first official bilateral visit to any country as Foreign Affairs Minister – a trip intended to underscore the importance Ottawa places on relations with Beijing. Mr. Baird shrugged off questions about the coincidence by arguing Ottawa can't control the case.

"There's no timing in my visit. I think most independent observers of the legal case will know that an elected official, let alone a minister, has no say in terms of the timing of the return," Mr. Baird told reporters on a conference call from Beijing. "I did caution my Chinese counterpart that they shouldn't count on it being overly expeditious."

He also said: "Obviously the government is before the courts, government agencies' petitions are before the courts to make our case for the extradition of this individual."

"I'm prevented from going into specifics on the individual case. But I can say is this... The one thing I've found, [where]there's significant alignment is both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters."

Mr. Lai fled to Canada in 1999, accused of leading a massive smuggling, bribery and fraud operation that made him one of China's most-wanted men.

Concerns that China might execute Mr. Lai blocked Canada from extraditing him in the early years. But China has since assured Ottawa that it would not execute him. The question, however, is whether those assurances are reliable guarantees – and critics also argue China's legal system does not provide sufficient due process to decide the case fairly.

Mr. Baird's tone in describing relations with Beijing underlined the efforts that Stephen Harper's Conservative government is making to warm ties – a change from the early days of Tory government, when comments about Tibet and human rights annoyed China, and Mr. Harper chose not to make a visit. The Prime Minister finally visited at the end of 2009.

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Mr. Baird not only said Ottawa welcomes Chinese investment in Canada, including the oil and gas sector, but referred to working with Beijing as "friends" on human rights.

And as he related discussions about Libya with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, he said it was important to seek the "perspective of an important ally."

China has differed with Canadian and western views on Libya, and is not a Canadian military ally.

Mr. Baird said he raised human rights issues with Mr. Yang behind closed doors, but did not describe which issues, or what he said – although when pressed specifically on whether he had raised the issue of discrimination against Falun Gong practitioners, he said he had. Mr. Baird argued it was more effective to raise such issues directly in private meetings than to criticize China from Canada.

"With friends, you can have good exchanges on issues. I think it's better to have those exchanges than just by sitting at home and griping," he said.

He also said: "Obviously the government is before the courts, government agencies' petitions are before the courts to make our case for the extradition of this individual."

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"I'm prevented from going into specifics on the individual case. But I can say is this... The one thing I've found, [where]there's significant alignment is both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters."

Mr. Lai fled to Canada in 1999, accused of leading a massive smuggling, bribery and fraud operation that made him one of China's most-wanted men.

Concerns that China might execute Mr. Lai blocked Canada from extraditing him in the early years. But China has since assured Ottawa that it would not execute him. The question, however, is whether those assurances are reliable guarantees – and critics also argue China's legal system does not provide sufficient due process to decide the case fairly.

Mr. Baird's tone in describing relations with Beijing underlined the efforts that Stephen Harper's Conservative government is making to warm ties – a change from the early days of Tory government, when comments about Tibet and human rights annoyed China, and Mr. Harper chose not to make a visit. The Prime Minister finally visited at the end of 2009.

Mr. Baird not only said Ottawa welcomes Chinese investment in Canada, including the oil and gas sector, but referred to working with Beijing as "friends" on human rights.

And as he related discussions about Libya with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, he said it was important to seek the "perspective of an important ally."

China has differed with Canadian and western views on Libya, and is not a Canadian military ally.

Mr. Baird said he raised human rights issues with Mr. Yang behind closed doors, but did not describe which issues, or what he said – although when pressed specifically on whether he had raised the issue of discrimination against Falun Gong practitioners, he said he had. Mr. Baird argued it was more effective to raise such issues directly in private meetings than to criticize China from Canada.

"With friends, you can have good exchanges on issues. I think it's better to have those exchanges than just by sitting at home and griping," he said.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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