Until she was detained at Vancouver airport in December 2018, Meng Wanzhou was not a household name. But the 49-year-old Huawei executive has now become the face of a high-stakes trilateral dispute between China, Canada and the US.
On Wednesday a marathon extradition hearing wrapped up in Vancouver, after months of legal arguments over whether she should be sent to the US to face charges of criminal fraud. Should the judge say yes at the next hearing in October, the case will be sent to Canada’s justice minister for a final decision. It has the potential to stretch out for years.
The case is complicated, high-profile and somewhat peculiar. It has sent China’s relations with the US and Canada plummeting with accusations of political arrests and “hostage diplomacy” thrown across borders, and rising nationalist rhetoric from both China and the US.
‘Princess of Huawei’
Meng – who also goes by her English name, Sabrina – is the chief financial officer and deputy chair of the board at the powerful Chinese tech giant founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei.
Like Huawei, Meng’s rise to prominence in global telecom business is also a story of China’s long pursuit of “wealth and power”. Inside the company her father built, Meng quickly climbed the ranks to become its CFO, in a controversial period for the tech giant as world governments began locking it out of state infrastructure, fearful of its links and data-sharing obligations to Beijing.
She is the subject of immense national pride: a Chinese woman who makes a real impact in a male-dominated club of the global business elite. State media has called Meng the “princess of Huawei”, and campaigned for her release, painting her as a hostage of the two North American governments.
“Chinese society from the very beginning, including the government, have had the belief that this is a case engineered and manipulated by the US, that this is a political case not a legal case,” said law professor Wang Jiangyu of the City University of Hong Kong.
“This is a political persecution by the United States on Chinese citizens, and another example of the US government’s unreasonable suppression of Chinese companies and attempts to stop the development of China’s hi-tech industries,” the People’s Daily said recently on Weibo.
Born in Chengdu, in China’s south-western Sichuan province, Meng gained a master’s degree in accounting from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and worked for the China Construction Bank before joining her father’s business Huawei in 1993. Huawei credits her with establishing its “globally unified finance organisation” and standardising organisational and procedural systems across the company, and leading a years long partnership with IBM.
During the extradition trial Meng has lived in an old-money neighbourhood of Vancouver, where she previously lived for several years in the early 2000s. She is visited by her husband and two children, and her neighbours include, ironically, the US consulate general – the address of America’s top diplomat in Vancouver.
“In other words, Canada – a vast country of 37 million people – is being squeezed by the rivalry of neighbours on this one Vancouver street,” said a BBC documentary last year.
An open letter to supporters on the first anniversary of her arrest provided a glimpse into the life she now leads. “Right now, time seems to pass slowly. It is so slow that I have enough time to read a book from cover to cover,” she wrote. “I can take the time to discuss minutiae with my colleagues or to carefully complete an oil painting.”
At her multimillion-pound house, Meng has received visits from both a masseuse and an art teacher. By day, she is free to move within the limits of the city, and photographs of her leaving for court show her wearing bright corporate dresses and spiked heels, accessorised with a tracking device strapped to her ankle.
Court documents showed that Meng prefers high-end designer stores where she can shop in private. She spent Christmas Day at a downtown restaurant that catered exclusively to her party of 14.
But Meng’s living conditions in Canada contrast starkly with those of two Canadians detained in apparent retaliation for her arrest. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been held in harsh Chinese detention, subject to interrogations and alleged mistreatment. Chinese authorities deny their arrests were related but also repeatedly suggest their freedom is tied to Meng’s.
Before her arrest, Meng’s profile was often overshadowed by that of her father and boss, Ren, a billionaire Chinese Communist party member and former army engineer.
“Whenever people talked about Huawei it was always about him,” said Wang.
“The public perception, his public image is that because he is the founder of China’s most successful tech firm and has developed the homegrown technology, or at least this is what’s told in China, he’s considered to be a strong man.”
Wang said China has fought so hard to have her returned, not because she holds any inside knowledge of Huawei’s tech – and even if she did it would be largely out of date now – but because she has become an “iconic figure” representing China’s grievances and perceived mistreatment by the west. China’s leaders want to show they will protect all citizens overseas, but also that Meng is an important person working for an important company, and has been unjustly arrested by the opposing side amid a cold tech and trade war.
“Getting her back is symbolic, but it’s very significantly symbolic. The Chinese government cannot afford her being sent to the US,” said Wang.
Wang said there were elements in her arrest which gave some merit to China’s claims that it was politically motivated. Public comments by the then US president, Donald Trump – that he could intervene in the case if it helped get a better trade deal – bolstered China’s argument.
And then there are the circumstances of her alleged crime. “Meng Wanzhou was making the presentation to HSBC staff in her capacity as a Huawei senior executive … not in her personal capacity,” he said.
“In these kinds of cases you don’t arrest senior executives – she was doing it on behalf of the company. So the request to arrest her in Canada in very ridiculous, and definitely politically driven. But I wouldn’t say the same about the [extradition] trial process. Canada is a rule of law country … You have to separate the two processes.”
Meng is no longer low-profile. Numerous Chinese articles have focused on her business acumen, her elegance, her supportive husband and social media posts like letters to family about missing their birthdays. On Thursday a statement of support from Huawei became the number one search term on the Chinese search engine Baidu.
This week, as China marks the 1,000th day of Meng’s detention in Canada, the state-owned tabloid the Global Times launched an online petition calling for signatures “in demanding that Canada release Chinese citizen Meng Wanzhou being persecuted by the US”.
A year after his daughter’s arrest, Ren praised her and told CNN their relationship had blossomed because of her predicament. They speak often and his wife has visited their daughter in Vancouver.
“She should be proud to have been caught in this situation. In the fight between the two nations, she became a bargaining chip,” he said.
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin
This article was amended on Friday 20 August 2021. Meng Wanzhou’s father has not visited her, and her husband and children do not live with her, but have visited her.