China’s apparent use of Canadian detainees as diplomatic bargaining chips is not just a problem for Canada. It is a challenge to all countries that seek to uphold the rule of law in their domestic and international affairs.
The dispute began in December when Canadian police arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on an extradition request from the United States. Meng is accused of fraud for allegedly conspiring to mislead several banks between 2009 and 2014. U.S. authorities claim that she deliberately misrepresented the relationship between Huawei and Skycom Tech, a Hong Kong-based company that did business in Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Furious Chinese officials, who portrayed Meng’s arrest as a “politically motivated” attempt by the U.S. to weaken China, threatened Canada with ‘grave consequences’ if she was not immediately released.
Regrettably, President Donald Trump did little to dispel their suspicions. In his first public comment on the case, he suggested that he might be willing to intervene in Meng’s prosecution in exchange for trade concessions from China, although it is not clear that he even has the power to do so. The Canadian government sought immediate clarification.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials quickly rebutted Trump’s remarks. ‘What we do at the Justice Department is law enforcement. We don’t do trade,’ said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. In fact, the charges against Meng stemmed from a long-standing Justice Department investigation that reportedly predated the Trump Administration.
Meanwhile, China took dramatic action of its own. Nine days after Meng’s arrest, and just two days after warning Canada of “grave consequences,” Chinese officials detained two Canadian citizens – Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave from the foreign ministry and working for the International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman – on suspicion of endangering China’s national security.
Beijing seemed to be sending a message to Canada. In the words of Canada’s former ambassador to China, “there is no [such thing as a] coincidence in China’ when high-profile arrests are involved. It seemed implausible that Chinese authorities were unaware of the implications of incarcerating an on-leave Canadian diplomat immediately after they had issued a dire warning to Canada.
Their actions also fit a pattern of previous Chinese behaviour. In 2014, Canada had arrested another Chinese national, Su Bin, also on an extradition request from the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Chinese security officials detained a Canadian couple living in China, Kevin and Julia Garratt, accusing them of espionage.
In fact, the Garratts were not spies, but Su Bin was. He confessed to breaking into the computer systems of U.S. defense contractors and stealing military secrets. Only after Su Bin surrendered to U.S. authorities did China allow the Garratts to return to Canada in 2016. The couple later reported that they had faced daily six-hour interrogations by a team of three men, who repeatedly threatened them with execution, during their long detention.
China denied any connection between the Garratts’ detention and Su Bin, just as it now denies retaliating against Canada for Meng’s arrest. However, Canadian government officials and independent experts came to believe that Beijing was holding the Garratts in order to apply pressure on Canada. Indeed, when I raised the Garratts’ case with Chinese embassy officials on several occasions in 2015 and early 2016 — while I was serving as an adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — they routinely responded by mentioning Su Bin.
Canadians, in other words, had seen this movie before. But it was about to get worse. On 14 January, Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who had already been sentenced by Chinese courts to a 15-year jail term for drug trafficking, was abruptly retried and handed a death sentence by judges who deliberated for barely an hour.
Experts in China’s legal system expressed surprise at the extraordinary circumstances and rapidity of Schellenberg’s retrial. The case raised “the suspicion that the judiciary in China is merely a servant of politics,” wrote Zhang Jianwei, a professor at Tsinghua University. Another expert put it more bluntly: Beijing was using its justice system to conduct “hostage diplomacy.”
Canadians have understandably reacted with dismay and indignation, not just at China’s apparent use of arbitrary judicial measures to pressure Canada, but also at the treatment of the detained Canadians. Kovrig and Spavor are still in custody and have not been charged. They are reportedly being held in jail cells where the lights remain on 24 hours a day, and have been subjected to lengthy and daily interrogations, including questions about Kovrig’s previous work as a Canadian diplomat – a possible violation of his diplomatic immunity.
Meng, by contrast, is being afforded due process. She was quickly released on bail for 10 million Canadian dollars, pending the start of her extradition hearing, and is represented by counsel who can challenge the U.S. extradition request before an independent court. Meng’s father, the founder of Huawei, has thanked the Canadian justice system for treating his daughter so well.
Beijing’s tactics have prompted a display of solidarity among rule-of-law countries. The European Union and several of its members – including Britain, France and Germany – as well as the United States, Australia and others have issued statements of concern about the detentions.
However, this is not the first time that an authoritarian regime has targeted Canada for punishment. When Canada called on Riyadh to release human rights campaigners from prison last summer, the Saudis’ retaliation was fast and fierce. They expelled the Canadian ambassador, suspended commercial negotiations, pulled their students from Canadian universities and apparently ordered the disposal of Canadian assets.
During that episode, Canada’s traditional partners kept their heads down. Under previous U.S. administrations, the White House could have been counted on to support Canada in a dispute with Saudi Arabia over human rights, but this time U.S. officials pointedly refused to take sides. The same was true in Europe. Although some European countries offered backchannel help, none publicly backed Canada. Not Britain. Not France. Not even Germany, which Saudi Arabia had subjected to similar treatment not long before.
It would be a mistake to treat these incidents as isolated aberrations. Authoritarian regimes have been growing bolder and pushing the limits of acceptable behaviour. How other states respond is important. When Saudi leaders sought to make an example of Canada, they may have been counting on the United States and other liberal democracies to look the other way – a correct expectation, as it turned out. We may never know if this non-reaction emboldened Riyadh, but two months later, someone in the Saudi government took the remarkable step of dispatching an assassination team to intercept the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul. The strength of the international reaction to Khashoggi’s murder seemed to catch the Saudis by surprise.
This is why a strong, collective response to China’s treatment of Canadian detainees is so important now. If rule-of-law states fail to push back, what lessons will China and other authoritarian regimes take away from this episode? Whose citizens will be next?
Pushing back does not mean treating China as an enemy. Managing relations with this emerging great power will require continued cooperation in areas of mutual interest. However, resisting China when it acts aggressively is just as important. Beijing needs to understand that ‘hostage diplomacy’ will not be tolerated.
This is not the first test facing rule-of-law countries, nor will it be the last. Many political leaders, think tanks, academics and commentators are warning about risks to the rules-based international order — and rightly so. But the disintegration of this order, if it happens, will likely be the result of a series of discrete incidents and decisions that erode its foundations, not a single blow.
The challenge is to recognize these moments when they are occurring – and to act accordingly.
This piece was originally published by Chatham House.