Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians detained in China for 674 days, met virtually with the Canadian ambassador to China in mid-October; the first consular visit allowed them by Chinese authorities since January of this year. The “two Michaels” were arrested in December 2018, shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on behalf of US law enforcement seeking her extradition on fraud charges. In June 2020, China charged Spavor and Kovrig with espionage, a serious offense that in some cases carries a death sentence. In a statement released after the consular visit, Kovrig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla said that “Michael’s spirit, determination—and even his sense of humor—remain unbroken.”
Michael Kovrig's wife says that when he had a virtual consular visit after months without 'news from the outside world,' he was 'astonished to learn about the details of the COVID-19 pandemic and remarked that it all sounded like some "zombie apocalypse movie."' Full statement: pic.twitter.com/MWcRbJXwBW
— CBC News Alerts (@CBCAlerts) October 11, 2020
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Mike Blanchfield reported on the Chinese government’s proffered explanation for the Kovrig and Spavor’s isolation:
The Chinese government has said it can’t allow in-person visits to prisons because of concerns around COVID-19. The federal government has been pushing China since the spring for an alternative form of access in order to check on the welfare of the two men.
“There was absolutely no reason that virtual access couldn’t have been offered by China even during the height of the pandemic, and no justification for denying in-person visits after China emerged from lockdown during the summer,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China.
“This is simply more cruel treatment by China, with the expectation that we will be grateful even for even a half-hearted effort on their part. We shouldn’t fall into that trap.”
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne pressed for virtual access in his own in-person meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, when the two crossed paths in Rome in August.
Up until January, Canadian diplomats had been able to visit the two men approximately once a month. [Source]
The Canadian government alleges that the detention of Kovrig and Spavor is arbitrary and illegal. Crisis Group, Kovrig’s employer, has compiled a list of official condemnations of the pair’s detention. During an October 12 press conference, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused Kovrig and Spavor of endangering Chinese national security, and the Canadian government of lawlessness:
The Canadian side said that “it is deeply concerned about China’s arbitrary detention of the two Canadian citizens”. China firmly opposes the erroneous remarks by the Canadian side. As for the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, China has made clear its position on many occasions. They are suspected of engaging in activities endangering China’s national security, and Chinese judicial organs handle the cases independently according to law. It must be pointed out that arbitrary detention is what Canada did to Ms. Meng Wanzhou, not what China has done. The Canadian side’s attempt to gang up on China is totally futile and counterproductive. We urge the Canadian side to reject double standards, earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks.
As for the consular visits, at the request of the Canadian side, the competent Chinese authorities have arranged, in accordance with law and as epidemic prevention and control conditions allow, officials from the Canadian embassy in China to have a virtual meeting with the Canadian citizens. During the process, the Canadian side strictly followed China’s epidemic prevention regulations. On the basis of mutual respect and accommodating each other’s concerns, competent Chinese authorities will continue to handle consular visits to the Canadian citizens in accordance with law and epidemic situation. [Source]
Meng Wanzhou’s extradition proceedings have drawn Canada into the U.S.-China trade war, an uncomfortable position for Canadian diplomats and business executives. In a recent phone call, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked U.S. President Donald Trump for his efforts to seek the release of the two Canadians.
73% of Canadians now have negative views on China, up from 27% in 2002, according to a Pew Research Center survey. October 13, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and Canada. At the Ottowa Citizen, Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, called on Canadian politicians and executives to boycott events celebrating the anniversary:
Today marks 50 years since the Canadian government formally recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China, but many Canadians feel that there is nothing to celebrate while China is holding innocent Canadians in prison. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for possible extradition to the U.S. Beijing made clear that Canada had to “look first to its own mistake” and send Meng home.
When Meng lost her double criminality challenge in B.C. court, the Michaels were formally charged with unspecified national security allegations. In addition, four Canadians have now been given sentences of execution for drug offences. Robert Schellenberg and Fan Wei were sentenced after Meng’s arrest. Xu Weihong and Ye Jianhui were sentenced two days apart, less than two weeks before one of Meng’s court hearings. Asked if the cases were connected, a Chinese official said “the Canadian side knows the root cause” of difficulties in Canada-China relations.
During the more than 670 days of Kovrig and Spavor’s incarceration, the Canadian government has worked closely with other liberal democracies that have experienced China’s medieval hostage-taking as retaliation for perceived offences. They, too, have spoken against the detention of our Canadians, both publicly and privately in meetings with Chinese ministers and officials. We know that Beijing does not like this because they have instructed us to stop. [Source]
Both Canada and China have issued recriminations about the downward turn in relations. State news tabloid Global Times quoted a Chinese researcher’s view that “it is Canada that would eat all the bitter fruits of strained ties,” while Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Champagne wrote that “The use of coercive diplomacy causes Canada to re-examine its approach.”
Canada FM's statement on the 50th anniversary of Canada-China diplomatic relations was "diplomatic" re how strained ties are. In fact, relations can't stabilize or improve until China releases Michael Kovrig & Michael Spavor, who've been unjustly detained for 674 days. https://t.co/AOarjJLmC0 pic.twitter.com/ehJB2yvX6D
— Scott Kennedy (@KennedyCSIS) October 13, 2020
While ties deteriorate, Meng’s case moves on. Preliminary proceedings against the Huawei CFO resumed in late September in anticipation of full hearings in February.