A Number of Statements by China’s Ambassador Cong Peiwu’s to an audience of Military & Defence Professionals in Ottawa have drawn criticism from Richard Fadden, Former National Security Adviser & Deputy Minister of Defence.

Ambassador Cong Peiwu’s controversial remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 4 touched on a variety of issues, including the arrest of two Canadians in China, the repression of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, coercion and China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

The detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor came shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the Vancouver airport in December 2018 for extradition to the United States on bank fraud charges and for violating sanctions against Iran.

Speaking as part of a panel at the conference, Cong said the authorities in China are handling the Kovrig and Spavor cases according to the country’s laws.

“We are a country with a rule of law,” he said in response to a question from the panel’s moderator.

Fadden, also a Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service director, says China interprets the rule of law very differently from how Canada does. In China, the judiciary system is controlled by the ruling communist regime, unlike Canada with its independent justice system. “He was advocating the position of his government,” he said. “We don’t agree. I don’t agree.”

In their first year of detention in China, Kovrig and Spavor have not had access to a lawyer or family, according to news reports.

Cong added that the arrests were not arbitrary and declined to give an update on the mens’ condition.

“They are in the judicial process of China … all their human rights are protected, that’s for sure,” he told reporters after his panel appearance.

Fadden said the timing of the arrests was “totally arbitrary.”

“It was connected to what we did with Ms. Meng,” he said.

“I wish we weren’t reduced to the point of recognising that our systems of law are so different that we’re talking about apples and oranges,” Fadden added.

‘Vocational Training’

China has been widely condemned for its suppression of Uyghur Muslims in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 annual report, “The U.S. government and the international community must swiftly and resolutely sanction Chinese officials and agencies that have perpetrated or tolerated severe religious freedom violations … in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

One of the key findings of the report was that in the summer of 2018, Beijing detained 800,000 to possibly more than 2 million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang and deployed 1 million communist party cadres to live with Uyghur Muslim families to report on any signs of “extremist” religious behaviour.

Cong said that what the Chinese regime is doing in Xinjiang is “nothing like a concentration camp” and that it is not curbing religious freedom.

“Some of the western media can be misleading, so be careful,” he said, describing the media reports on atrocities in Xinjiang as “distorted” and “a lot of fake news.”

He went on to say Beijing was running “vocational training centres” in Xinjiang and that the government has to take preventative counter-terrorism measures.

“I totally disagree with the ambassador who is saying they are something akin to vocational training—they are not that,” Fadden said.

Cong actually specifically mentioned China’s “soft power” campaign being enhanced due to other countries giving “very positive remarks for what has been done there for anti-terrorism.”

“Of all the things he said, that surprised me the most,” Fadden said.

At times Cong’s statements were met with murmurs of apparent disapproval from the audience.

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

Throughout the conference, China was repeatedly singled out as a threat to nations’ sovereignty via military, cyber, and coercive means.

Cong preached multilateralism and abandoning geopolitical self-interest. He touted the massive Belt & Road infrastructure project across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as a way to facilitate peace through development.

“He was putting the most positive construction on a policy initiative that he possibly could,” Fadden said, adding that the initiative is done consciously as a developed policy to increase the influence of the Chinese regime over time across the region.

Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance said China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea are undermining that region through various actions just below the threshold of full-blown conflict that, in isolation, would not merit responses.

“We are in a global fight over values,” he said during the conference’s final presentation, calling these kinds of actions by Beijing “death by a thousand cuts.”

Ambassador Cong was the only speaker whose opening remarks were cut off by the moderator for taking too long, but it marked the first time in the 88 year history of the Ottawa Conference that the Chinese Ambassador participated.