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The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to correct itself this week after one of its spokespeople said that the two Canadian men being held hostage by Beijing had been “arrested, indicted and tried.” It turned out to be “an inaccurate characterization,” according to Canada’s Global Affairs Department. There was no trial.

It’s hard to know which is more darkly hilarious: the momentary thought that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – the “two Michaels,” as they are known to Canadians – might have been tried and convicted by China’s politically rigged court system without even themselves being aware of it; or the fact that they have now spent two years in prison without going to trial on baseless charges of espionage concocted by Beijing to justify their detention.

Anyone with eyes can see that the two men, who both worked in China, were seized by authorities on Dec. 10, 2018, in retaliation for the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested at Vancouver Airport nine days earlier on an extradition request from the United States.

Ms. Meng, who the U.S. says committed fraud in an effort to circumvent its sanctions on Iran, is free on bail and living in Vancouver, in one of her two luxury homes, as she and her lawyers fight the extradition case against her.

All the rights and privileges of an accused person in Canada, including the presumption of innocence and due process, are hers to enjoy.

The two Michaels, meanwhile, live in crowded prison cells, cut off from basic rights and loved ones. Canadian diplomats were not allowed to visit them, even virtually, from January to October.

It is likely that the two men are confined to cells in which the lights are on 24 hours a day, a form of torture. They are subjected to frequent and prolonged interrogations, and live with the fear of being put on show trial at any minute and being handed lengthy sentences.

For Canadians, and especially for the Trudeau government, the prolonged injustice and maltreatment forced on the two Michaels has stripped away any lingering illusions about the Communist Party of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

The past two years have seen Ottawa denounce the arrests of the two Michaels, while also trying to maintain ties with an increasingly aggressive and easily peeved regime in Beijing.

The Trudeau government’s tightrope diplomacy was in full swing last year, after Global Affairs complained to the Department of National Defence about a decision to cancel winter military exercises with China’s armed forces.

General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, cancelled the 2019 joint exercises at the request of the U.S. – a move Global Affairs worried would be seen in Beijing as retaliation for the arrests of the two Michaels.

“While resolving the consular cases is the government of Canada’s top priority, ensuring a certain amount of continuity in other parts of the Canada-China relationship remains important,” a Global Affairs memo said.

That’s to be expected. Neither Canada nor our allies is about to cut off relations with the world’s second-largest economy. And there is a clear understanding that China has the weight, and the penchant for lawlessness, to do far more harm to Canada than Canada could ever do to it.

But the Trudeau government’s approach also raises the question of how much bullying it will tolerate, and whether it has a red line it will not cross when it comes to China’s provocations.

After all, the detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have been far from the only outrageous behaviour exhibited by China since 2018. Think of the “re-education” of millions of Muslim Uyghurs and the likelihood that some of them are now being used as forced labour; the flagrant violation of Beijing’s agreement to allow Hong Kong to continue as an autonomous democracy; China’s punitive trade embargos against Canada and other middle powers, such as Australia, that dare criticize its human-rights violations; and its coverup of the critical early days of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Ottawa has to engage with China at the same time as denouncing its excesses. It doesn’t really have another option. But the past two years have left Canadians wondering how far Beijing can go before the Trudeau government finally says enough is enough.

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