Since the row between Beijing and Ottawa over the case of Meng Wanzhou broke out in early December, China has detained three Canadian citizens so far.
At a regular press conference on December 20, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed that a third Canadian citizen, Sarah McIver, has been taken into “administrative detention” for “working illegally” in China.
“The Canadian citizen is on administrative penalty by public security organization for illegal employment,” Hua said. “China and Canada are holding smooth consular communication on the matter.”
Hua stressed that the other two detained Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been detained by China’s State Security organs on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security.”
According to The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette, McIver, originally from Alberta, had previously taught in South Korea and Malaysia. She spent this past summer back in Alberta working at a furniture store, where she had previously worked for a couple years. Then she left for China and has been teaching English in China for several months.
It’s an open secret that a large number of foreigners have been teaching English in China while on a tourist visa rather than a work visa. Yet in most cases, the Chinese government as well as Chinese employers tend to turn a blind eye to it. Based on available information, it’s likely that McIver had not obtained a proper work visa. But the timing of McIver’s detention made people suspect that it was another example of Chinese retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou.
On December 19, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the press that he thought the third detention was more of a routine matter rather than a tit-for-tat retaliation.
According to Al Jazeera, Trudeau said the third Canadian detained does not seem to fit the pattern of the two previous ones.
“[The first two people arrested] were accused of serious crimes, problems regarding national security, intelligence, so those cases are more serious,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau also declined to call Chinese President Xi Jinping directly over the three cases for fear that “political posturing or statements are not necessarily going to help those detained.”
“Escalation or very strong political statements can actually end up being counterproductive,” he noted. “Escalation and political posturing might be satisfactory in the short term to make yourself seem like you are stomping on the table and doing something significant, but it may not contribute to the outcome we all want.”
In contrast to Trudeau’s discretion, Canadian Conservative Member of Parliament Erin O’Toole sent a public warning message to all Canadians. He said in an interview:
There’s hundreds of Canadians in one way or another working (in China) and is this something that they should worry about — existing visas? That’s what’s very disconcerting about this … Canadians should know if suddenly visas are going to be pulled and reviewed and reconsidered. If China is indeed scrutinizing existing visas, Ottawa should post a new travel advisory to alert Canadians.