China has expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with Justin Trudeau after he criticised the death sentence passed on a Canadian man convicted of drug trafficking, as the two countries continued to spar over detained citizens.
The Canadian prime minister should “respect the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty, correct mistakes and stop making irresponsible remarks”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.
A day earlier, Trudeau said that the death sentence had been applied “arbitrarily” in the case of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg when it was upped from a 15-year prison sentence on appeal.
“We express our strong dissatisfaction with this,” Hua said.
But on Tuesday, Canada showed little sign of backing away from its condemnation of the verdict.
“Canada’s position when it comes to the death penalty is consistent and very long-standing,” the foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, told reporters. “We believe it is inhumane and inappropriate, and wherever the death penalty is considered with regard to a Canadian we speak out against it.”
She said Canada’s ambassador, John McCallum, had petitioned China for clemency on behalf of Schellenberg.
Schellenberg has 10 days to appeal the death penalty. If he doesn’t, or if the appeal is rejected, then the court’s verdict would go to the supreme people’s court in Beijing. If they approve it, the execution could happen within seven days, but the court could also reduce the sentence.
Relations between the two countries – which only months before had been in pursuit of a large free trade agreement – turned icy in early December when Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive and Chinese citizen, for extradition to the US.
Critics say Beijing is using Schellenberg’s case to exert pressure on Ottawa.
But analysts have been confounded by the dramatic deterioration in relations.
“I’m mystified by the lack of restraint in the Chinese response. It’s not what I would expect to have from such a serious strategic country, and the Chinese are highly strategic,” said Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “In this instance it seems that are allowing anger to get the better of their strategic foresight.”
While China has been vocal about Canada’s arrest of Meng on 1 December, Trudeau’s comments in recent days have also been “unhelpful”, said Byers.
“He suggested a few days ago that one of the Canadians who has been detained has diplomatic immunity, which is patently false,” he said, adding that Trudeau’s comments that Schellenberg’s detention was “arbitrary” did little to remedy a fraught situation. “This public posturing on both sides is therefore misguided by both governments.”
Domestically, Trudeau has faced growing criticism from opposition parties for his reluctance to speak directly with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Said Byers: “I think the avoidance of direct leader-to-leader is a good policy. We have diplomats for a reason and our embassy enables us to communicate messages – outside of the public spotlight.”