‘End of the saga’? Meng Wanzhou deal offers hope for Canadians held in China

The cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, arrested in 2018, have prompted accusations of ‘hostage diplomacy’

On a drizzly December day in 2018, Huawei’s chief financial officer landed in Vancouver international airport after a 12-hour flight from Hong Kong.

Meng Wanzhou, whose father founded the telecoms giant Huawei, planned to stay just a few hours in the coastal Canadian city before traveling on to Mexico.

Instead, she spent 33 months in Vancouver, at the centre of a bitter standoff between China and the United States – with Canada and two of its citizens unwittingly caught in the middle.

Before she could board her next flight, Meng was intercepted by Canadian border security officers acting at the request of US authorities who wanted Canada to extradite Meng, so that she could stand trial for allegedly misleading HSBC about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran.

On Friday, prosecutors in New York announced a settlement under which Meng agreed to a statement of facts, in which she was accused of misleading HSBC, but maintained her “not guilty” plea.

Her house arrest in Vancouver is expected to be lifted and the extradition case dropped. Now, Justin Trudeau’s government will be hoping that the deal may bring freedom for two Canadian men held by Beijing.

Nine days after Meng’s arrest, police in Beijing scooped up Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat-turned-consultant. Kovrig, a Mandarin speaker, had been working full-time for the International Crisis Group since February 2017.

The same day, Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur who facilitated sports and cultural exchanges between North Korea, China and Canada, was arrested in the northern city of Dandong.

In June 2020, after more than 560 days in detention, China formally charged the two men with espionage – allegations that were widely seen as fabricated.

A woman holds a sign with images of Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December 2018, during a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy in Vancouver, Canada.
A woman holds a sign with images of Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December 2018, during a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy in Vancouver, Canada. Photograph: Darryl Dyck/AP

The two men were put on trial in March. Canadian officials protested both the “arbitrary detention” of Kovrig and Spavor and the secrecy and speed of the court proceedings, which lasted mere hours.

Canada has accused China of engaging in “hostage diplomacy” to win Meng’s freedom but it is the contrast between the conditions suffered by the two Michaels and those enjoyed by Meng that have particularly incensed Canada and its allies.

Neither Kovrig nor Spavor were granted bail, nor were they given frequent legal counsel or consular visits. Neither have seen family in more than 900 days.

Through letters, Kovrig has told his family that he is largely subsisting on a diet of boiled rice, taking 7,000 steps around his cell every day to stay healthy and eagerly reading whatever he can find.

“It’s just unbelievably remarkable and inspiring how he is marshalling every resource available to him,” his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told the Guardian last year. The two are separated, but she has remained a strong advocate for his release. “He’s doing everything that he can to come out of this experience healthy and not having been defeated or broken.”

Meng, in contrast, was promptly granted bail and spent the following months in a multimillion-dollar house in Vancouver, where she has received visits from a masseuse and an art teacher.

She was free to move around much of the city, although she had to remain in the company of court-appointed security guards during the day. Meng prefered high-end designer stores in Vancouver, according to court documents, so that she could shop in private. At night, she remained under house arrest.

Meng spent Christmas day at a downtown restaurant that catered exclusively to the group of 14, the documents also show. Her family also came to visit for the holidays – breaking the government rules over isolation protocols during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Michaels, meanwhile, were each allowed a phone call to their families – the first time Spavor had spoken with his family in more than two years.

“The situation completely soured the bilateral relationship between Canada and China, and we’ve also seen a significant hardening of public attitudes toward China here in Canada in a short period of time,” said Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Justin Trudeau.

“Some Canadians are angry, not because of the arrests of the two Michaels in China, but the ways in which Meng and the two Canadians are treated.”

There was anger in China, too, where Meng’s arrest was seen as a politically motivated move, part of the US “scheme to suppress China’s leading tech industry”, said Ma Ji, a senior CV Starr lecturer at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law.

Meng’s defence team said the evidence against her was flimsy, that her rights had been breached, and that Donald Trump had politicised her case and the American evidence against her was flimsy.

Despite the diplomatic impasse, bilateral trade volume appears to be on the up, Paris noted. In the first quarter of this year, Canadian exports to China rose over 37%, compared to the same period of last year, according to Canadian government data.

In early August, China convicted Spavor of espionage charges – part of what experts have suggested is a strategy of linking the fate of the two men to pivotal moments in Meng’s extradition hearings.

Friday’s ruling has raised hopes that a deal for the Canadians may finally be in the works.

“This should open the door for the possible release of the two Michaels,” Lynette Ong, associate political science professor at the University of Toronto, said. “Of course, a lot could happen between now and then; there’s still a great deal of uncertainty.”

Ong said that Beijing might delay action on the Canadian prisoners after Meng’s return to China, to maintain the fiction that the cases were not linked.

But she added: “I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the beginning of the end of the saga.”


Leyland Cecco in Otttawa and Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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