Meng Wanzhou has been out on bail for 836 days, whiling away her time in a Vancouver mansion, enjoying shopping sprees and such, while proceedings for extradition to the United States grind on.
Meng has had countless days in court, represented by top-drawer lawyers, every twist of the legal saga transparent. The chief financial officer of Huawei — largest privately held company in China, founded by her father — is accused of fraud and conspiracy by the U.S., alleged to have misled American banks to get around sanctions on Iran.
The two Michaels, former diplomat Kovrig and businessman Spavor, are charged with espionage against China. In an abrupt development, Spavor was brought to trial on Friday morning in the northeast city of Dandong, where he’s been held. The trial lasted under two hours. Details of the charges have never been disclosed. No verdict was rendered. Kovrig is to be put on trial Monday in Beijing and it will doubtless be more of the same — secrecy, denial of basic rights to mount a defence, and a judicial fait accompli.
Canada was left with a charge d’affaires from the embassy banging on the door of the Dandong court building, fruitlessly demanding entry, while diplomats from 10 other countries stood by in solidarity.
“We are disappointed in the lack of accuracy and the lack of transparency,” Jim Nickel, Canada’s deputy head of mission, told reporters. “The reasoning that has been given is it’s a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international laws, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access.”
As fighting words go, that was scarcely a mumble.
But, of course, there will be no dragooning of the Red Dragon to comply with fundamental human rights. They don’t give a toss.
As Ottawa mewls impotently, the only words of robust disaccord, whilst throwing down the gauntlet, were uttered in Anchorage, venue on Thursday and Friday of the first face-to-face meeting between officials of the Joe Biden administration and senior Chinese diplomats.
It was an astonishingly combative tête-à-tête under-summit, with harsh words exchanged from the get-go against the backdrop of a relations re-set from the dictatorship-mooning era of Donald Trump, although his administration engaged in trade wars, blacklisted some Chinese companies and, on the way out the door, declared Beijing was committing genocide against the Uighurs. China’s top diplomat accused the U.S. of taking a “condescending” approach to the talks and insisted the American delegation had no right to accuse Beijing of human rights abuses or lecture about democracy. Yang Jiechi snippily advised Washington to repair its own “deep-seated” problems, referencing specifically the Black Lives Matter movement against American racism.
“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang said through an interpreter. “And those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
“Grand-standing,” tit-for-tatted Washington.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke sharply in his rebuttal to journalists. “The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all. And that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”
Of course the two Michaels, if they come up at all, would be a small sidebar to the manifest disagreements betwixt Washington and Beijing, clearly headed on a diplomatic collision course that could shake the global community to its core. Yet those are the coattails to which Ottawa must cling if any resolution — forget about justice — can be attained for the captive Canadians.
Freedom for Kovrig and Spavor runs straight through Washington.
“It sounded like there was a bit of wolf-warrior diplomacy on the part of the Chinese,” Colin Robertson, ex-Canadian consul in Hong Kong and now vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says of the Anchorage parlay. “I think the temperatures inside were as cold as they were outside.”
Robertson assesses the problem of the Michaels within the context of a broader geopolitical wrangle between Washington and Beijing. “My sense is that China is sending a message to the neighbourhood that China can do what it likes to U.S. allies with impunity,” he said in an email. “You have to see the Kovrig and Spavor trials as part of a larger Chinese effort to disrupt and discredit the U.S. alliance system, especially in what it sees as its sphere of influence.”
Kovrig and Spavor are pawns in that political game, just as they were rooks when arrested in what was patently — despite China’s disavowal — retaliation for taking Meng into custody, at U.S. behest.
Obviously, Ottawa was limited in what it could do to wrest Kovrig and Spavor from China. The men were in Chinese hands after all, so it was prudent to refrain from verbal huzzing that would make their situation more fraught with peril. At the same time, caving to China’s demands would only be rewarding what amounts to hostage diplomacy. Further, what can’t be overlooked is the fact that China is Canada’s second-biggest trading partner. Poke that bear and it’s Canada which would suffer incalculably.
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“Trade sanctions won’t work with them,” Robertson tells the Star in a phone interview. “The Chinese will apply them to us and that’s only going to hurt Canadian food producers.”
Robertson says an asymmetrical approach by the Five Eyes — an intelligence-sharing alliance of Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — would be more effective. “I would go after the children of senior members of the Communist party and say, you can’t study in English-speaking countries.”
As well, among other options, Robertson encourages Canadian athletes to undertake a grassroots movement for shifting the 2022 Winter Olympics away from Beijing.
Hit ’em where it hurts in a way that Canada can punch above its weight.
Although it appears that China is impervious to shaming, Robertson argues this is an incorrect impression.
“Shaming to an extent works. To the Chinese face is really important. If we try to move the Olympics, that’s going to embarrass them. If we go after the children of Chinese community party members, that’s very embarrassing for the senior elite. Those are the people we’re trying to reach.”
“My view about the trial on Monday is the same that it has been all along,” Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibula, told the Star Friday. “No matter what happens Monday, Michael is innocent and our focus must be on securing his release.”
Though the couple is separated, Nadjibula has remained a strong advocate for her husband throughout the ordeal. If frustrated by the Canadian government’s debility in confronting China, she’s not saying so.
“Since Day 1, our government has said that this is a priority but I also recognize that leverage is limited. It needs to be resolved in a trilateral framework between China, the U.S. and Canada. That’s why the developments of the last couple of months have been encouraging, because we’ve had a strong commitment from the U.S. to help Canada secure their release. And I hope that commitment, stated by President Biden and others, will be translated into action.”
Nadjibula has had letters from Kovrig, who only in November was permitted his first visit by Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton, onsite virtual consul access. She says of her husband: “He’s doing everything he can to stay resilient. It’s been a long time, two years. That would take a toll on anyone. But he’s doing as well as anyone would hope. He’s staying strong and resolute.”
A 10-year sentence for both Michaels upon conviction is the prediction of many China experts. But a formal rendering could also untie the knot of a diplomatic stalemate. China could then assume a posture of diplomatic beneficence.
“In China’s eyes they would have been validated in their accusations,” says Robertson. “After that, they can exercise clemency in the knowledge that, from their perspective, due process was served and these people are guilty. In a sense, it makes it a bit easier.”
The mantle of mercy.