Following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada on December 1 for suspected violation of U.S. trade sanctions against Iran, Chinese authorities detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor. While Beijing initially claimed Kovrig’s employer—the International Crisis Group—potentially violated the Foreign NGO law, it later accused both Kovrig and Spavor of harming national security. A week later, teacher Sarah McIver was arrested for working illegally in China. Both Ottawa and Beijing denied her arrest had links to Meng—who was released on $7.5 million bail at her Vancouver home to await an extradition hearing—and McIver was sent back to Canada. However, Kovrig and Spavor remain in detention with limited consular access. Now, the Globe and Mail reports that a total of 13 Canadians have been detained in China since Meng’s arrest. Although Beijing has responded that it is protecting the “interests of the persons concerned during the process,” Michelle Zilio reports that this trend is creating a chilling effect on China’s foreign community:
[Global Affairs Canada spokesman] Mr. Bérubé said in the statement that at least eight of the 13 have been released. Global Affairs Canada did not disclose the identities of the other 10 Canadians.
The federal government has not linked any of the detentions with Ms. Meng’s arrest, although it has demanded the “immediate release” of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig.
[…] Canada has not updated its travel advice for China since diplomatic tensions between the two countries began to escalate. Mr. Bérubé said the government urges Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling in China, noting that it constantly reviews its travel advice for all countries.
The Conservatives are urging the government to issue a new travel warning for China in light of the detentions on Dec. 10 of Mr. Kovrig, an analyst for the non-profit organization International Crisis Group, and Mr. Spavor, who owns an organization that brings visitors to North Korea.
[…] Tory foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said he is concerned China is also using “administrative harassment” of Canadians, such as Ms. McIver, as retaliation. He said he is hearing from parents who are anxious about adult children teaching in China. [Source]
At the end of last year, China’s prosecutor general Zhang Jun told reporters that Kovrig and Spavor “without a doubt” violated Chinese law and are now being investigated “according to procedure.” In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Emily Rauhala describes the significance of this bold declaration from typically tight-lipped Chinese prosecutors:
Chinese officials are generally tight-lipped on politically sensitive issues, so the fact that an official spoke out about Kovrig and Spavor is noteworthy. It is also significant that it came from a top prosecutor, said Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra University’s law school who studies China’s legal system.
Ku said a comment from Zhang hints that Beijing plans to channel the case through China’s legal system rather than handling it with extralegal methods often used in high-profile, political cases. “The worst situation is when you are outside the legal process,” he said. “It’s not great to be in it, but it’s worse to be outside it.”
Since Meng was arrested in Vancouver, B.C., the Canadian government has repeatedly stressed that her case is a legal matter rather than a political one. Zhang’s comment gives the Chinese side the chance to draw a rhetorical parallel, sending a pointed message to the Canadian government: We, too, have laws.
It is not a clear parallel. Past cases suggest that Kovrig and Spavor can expect treatment that is markedly different from what happens in Canadian courts. In recent cases, foreign nationals held on security charges have been held incommunicado for extended periods, tortured, coerced into public confessions and, eventually, released. [Source]
Michael Spavor was shown as being “active” on Viber, an instant messaging app blocked in China, as recently as early on Wednesday, a screenshot of his online status viewed by Reuters showed.
Spavor was also shown as being on Facebook and Instagram in late December, after his arrest, according to screenshots shared by a person on his social media network on condition of anonymity.
Although Spavor’s accounts showed he was logged on, he did not post anything. It was not possible to tell if it was Spavor who logged on or someone else.
None of his friends have had any direct contact with him, despite the accounts being active, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. [Source]
The Huawei saga may have also entangled Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who was arrested in China four years ago, and recently appealed against drug smuggling charges. The South China Morning Post reported that a Chinese court ruled he was to be retried, as his 15-year sentence was too lenient.
Earlier this week, Australia also raised concerns over Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions, which some experts argue form part of Beijing’s push to challenge Western rule of law with its authoritarian “rule by law” system. Perrin Grauer and Joanna Chiu at The Star Vancouver detail how this reflects intensifying global anxiety over Beijing’s detaining of foreigners for political ends:
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne’s first official comments on the issue followed an open letter signed by dozens of Australian scholars and analysts requesting Canberra’s support in Canadian-led calls for the release of the detainees.
“The Australian government is concerned about the recent detention of two Canadian citizens in China,” Payne said in the statement carried by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“The Australian government has conveyed this position to Chinese counterparts and we have been in regular contact with Canadian officials.”
[…] According to Brock University associate professor of political science Charles Burton, the broad lobbying from prominent Australian academics partly reflects fear that Australians in China could face the same fate as the Canadian detainees. [Source]
Reflecting this fear, Rory Medcalf writes in the Australian Financial Review on how China’s “hostage-taking” also threatens Australia, and calls for fellow smaller democracies to unite to preserve their way of life:
But Australia needs to go further and join Canada, the EU, Germany, France, Britain and the United States in calling for the immediate release of the two wrongfully detained Canadians.
Why? There is the obvious affront to human rights. There are reports that Kovrig is being interrogated three times a day and kept in a room with lights on continuously. Moreover, neither has reportedly been allowed access to lawyers.
[…] There may be explanations for Australian caution. One is that quiet diplomacy is the best way to ensure the captives are released. But, as [former Australian Foreign Minister] Gareth Evans has said, that has been tried for weeks – including by Australian officials – and has failed.
[…] But [fear of economic retaliation] misses the point that Australia has gradually established a new normal with China, in which we have proven willing and able to stand our ground against coercion, and in which we recognise that China policy should be dictated neither by fear nor greed.
It is also a mistake to assume that the current strife is simply a side-effect of the so-called “trade war” – or, more accurately, technology competition – between the United States and China, as if Australia can simply opt out. [Source]