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International Campaign Offers Christmas Cheer to Canadians Jailed in China


Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities in December 2018.

Supporters of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadian citizens detained by Chinese authorities since December 2018, are joining a campaign to send them “season’s greetings” as the two prepare to spend a third Christmas behind bars.

Charles Parton, a former British diplomat who knew Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, in Beijing, started the “Christmas card” campaign. He spoke to VOA from London on what prompted him to launch the campaign.

“I was rereading the book by Anthony Grey, a Reuters correspondent, who was imprisoned in 1967 to 1969,” said Parton, now a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank focused on international defense and security.

Parton said he was struck by a passage in Grey’s memoir, Hostage in Peking, in which the author described how touched he was when he learned after his release that several thousand Britons and others had sent him Christmas cards while he was under arrest.

Charles Parton, former British career diplomat, is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). (Photo courtesy Charles Parton)
Charles Parton, former British career diplomat, is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). (Photo courtesy Charles Parton)

“I suddenly thought a contemporary version to that would be to send the Christmas card, but make sure that before you send it to the Chinese Embassy, that you put it online, with whatever social media you wish, under the hashtag #FreeChinaHostages, so that lots of people can see it,” he added.

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested shortly after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese state champion tech giant Huawei, was detained by Canadian authorities at the Vancouver international airport on December 1, 2018, at the request of the United States.

While China has not publicly linked the cases, it is widely assumed the two were seized in retaliation and that they are being held to pressure Canada for the release of Meng, who has remained under house arrest in Vancouver as the extradition case works its way through the Canadian courts.

Parton understands that the Christmas cards sent to the two Canadian citizens in care of Chinese embassies around the world probably “won’t get any further.” But “it would make the point to the local Chinese embassy how upset a lot of people are at what happened,” he said.

A second point, he said, is “to bring home to a wider public, the politicians, the press, just the nature of the way the Chinese Communist Party operates, therefore, whatever policy we devise towards them must take that into account.

“And thirdly, when Michael eventually does get out, or I should say, the two Michaels – I don’t know Michael Spavor, but of course his situation is the same – but when they get out, they realize a lot of people around the world cared,” Parton said.

Louisa Wall, a New Zealand lawmaker, told VOA in an email interview that “many of us are watching their situation with much concern” and “want these two men and their families to know that their heartache is not in vain, nor in isolation.”

Support for the two Canadians is also coming from lawmakers and citizens in other countries, including Sweden, the Czech Republic and Australia, which is going through its own trade battle with Beijing.

The International Crisis Group, where Kovrig was working when he was detained, has undertaken its own solidarity initiative.

Karim Lebhour, the group’s spokesperson, told VOA that he and his colleagues have been preparing scrapbooks to present to Kovrig on the day he is released. One of the books will provide a record of events that have taken place while he was jailed.

Canada’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, on Thursday published the addresses of the prison facilities that hold Kovrig and Spavor.

The paper also published a report to mark the two-year anniversary of their detention, with details of their ordeal.

Wei Jingsheng, a former Chinese political prisoner now living in exile, said in a phone interview that he very much likes the idea of a Christmas card campaign.

Wei recalled that one day during his 18 years of jail time, a young prison guard told him, “Hey, I didn’t know you had so many friends from outside.” The guard was referring to mail arriving at the prison and the attention Wei was receiving internationally.

“My spirit was greatly lifted upon hearing that,” Wei said. “Dissidents [inside China] used to be held as hostages; now foreigners are put in that same situation.”

Earlier this week, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne commented on the case of the two Michaels. “We are grateful to the many countries around the world that have expressed support for Canada and for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor,” he said.