TORONTO — An expert in Canada-China relations warns the recent detaining of an Alberta woman over what authorities have called employment issues could signal a ramping up of low-level harassment as the two countries remain locked in a diplomatic dispute.
Lynette Ong, with the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, said Canada's relationship with China fundamentally changed with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of tech giant Huawei in Vancouver on Dec. 1.
"I think both sides have actually lost a lot of legitimacy," Ong said Thursday.
Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the United States, where she is wanted on fraud allegations.
Her arrest enraged China which demanded her release and warned of serious consequences.
Days after Meng's arrest, two Canadians were detained in Beijing for allegedly endangering China's national security. Entrepreneur Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat on a leave of absence from Global Affairs. Both remain in custody.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday a Canadian woman had received an administrative penalty for illegal employment. She did not provide further details.
Several news outlets have reported that the Alberta woman who is being detained is Sarah McIver. She has been teaching in China for months.
The National Post reported that she was teaching at a school in China when she was detained due to visa complications and that arrangements were being made for her return to Canada.
Consular officials are providing assistance to the detainee's family, Global Affairs Canada said.
McIver had worked in multiple countries as a teacher, said Shaun Starr, whose brother was in a relationship with the Albertan a few years ago. While they haven't spoken in awhile, Starr said McIver posts about her travels on Facebook and has always been adventurous.
"She's a well-spirited person," Starr said in an interview.
The Chinese government could be reacting to Meng's arrest by creating bureaucratic inconveniences for Canadians, Ong said. That could include cracking down on people who have overstayed their visas while awaiting their renewal.
Canadians who study or do business in China may want to lie low and keep a low profile, she said.
"In the short term, in the next couple of months, I would try to cease any operations in China," she said. "I would definitely avoid taking any risky activities because the political environment is just not conducive."
Law enforcement officials allege that Wanzhou lied to U.S. banks about a corporate structure devised to get around sanctions against Iran. In China, Ong said Canada is seen as helping the United States with its politically calculated strategy to contain their country.
The Chinese government likely wants to show it has bargaining power by making life difficult for Canadians and Canadian businesses, she said.
Overstaying a visa while awaiting renewal was previously a grey area that wouldn't land people in much trouble but might now become a problem.
"But in this situation where there are bilateral tense relationships, the whole country might want to be tougher than usual," said Ong. "It seems to me that her case falls into one of these categories."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he didn't believe the case was linked to the recent arrests of the two other Canadians in the country.
He said Wednesday that the latest case, so far, doesn't involve serious allegations related to China's national security.
"These are two very different situations," Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa. "There are tens of thousands of Canadians who live, travel, work in China in any given year. There are obviously regular situations where Canadians require consular assistance."
He added that the government is taking the most recent case seriously and raised visa issues as the sort of thing that might draw Chinese authorities' attention.
The Canadian Press