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China’s hostage diplomacy

Beijing’s tactics brought home a Chinese telecom giant’s executive but will likely cause further rift with the West


Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou arrives at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport on Sept. 25. Jin Liwang/Xinhua via AP

China’s hostage diplomacy
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In a recent TV report, Chinese state media CGTN asked employees at Huawei’s R&D base in Guangdong what gift they would give the recently released Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. “A roasted goose,” one employee said. “All the articles from WeChat filled with compliments about her,” said another. Handwritten notes in a notebook read, “Welcome home, hero.” Another employee said Meng’s “spirit of perseverance” was what impressed him most about her nearly three years spent in Canada awaiting extradition to the United States.

That sense of national pride permeates both state media and Chinese netizens’ view of Meng since her return to China on Sept. 25. Chinese citizens didn’t hear how Meng admitted to some wrongdoing or that Beijing arbitrarily detained two Canadians—then released them—in exchange for Meng. Instead, the narrative was that China was too powerful to be bullied any longer by the United States and would go to any lengths to protect its citizens.

China responded to Meng’s arrest at the Vancouver airport on Dec. 1, 2018, on U.S. fraud charges by arresting Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur. While Meng shuttled between her two multimillion-dollar Vancouver mansions, went on shopping trips, and attended concerts, Kovrig and Spavor were locked up in prison, facing interrogations in facilities where the lights stayed on 24 hours a day. Spavor was so isolated from the outside world he only learned about the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020 during a virtual visit with Canadian diplomats.

The ordeal plunged Canada-China and U.S.-China relations to their lowest point in decades. Yet even as Meng, Kovrig, and Spavor have safely returned home, the tensions are far from over: China has revealed that it’s willing to engage in tit-for-tat hostage diplomacy with the West to get its way.

On Sept. 24, the U.S. Justice Department and Meng reached a deferred prosecution agreement. As part of the deal for Meng’s release, the Huawei executive consented to a statement of facts about deceiving the global bank HSBC and admitted some wrongdoing but pleaded not guilty to the fraud allegations. The United States alleged Meng lied to banks in 2013 about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran, which violated U.S. sanctions.

Hours later, Chinese authorities released Kovrig and Spavor, citing health reasons.

“It’s clear the detention of the two Canadian citizens is part of the retaliation or the hostage-taking” by the CCP for Meng’s arrest, said Teng Biao, an exiled Chinese human rights lawyer now living in New Jersey. He also pointed to other pressure the Chinese government has exerted on Canada and the United States to free the Huawei executive. For instance, in 2019, a Chinese court changed Canadian Robert Schellenberg’s sentence for drug smuggling from 15 years in prison to the death penalty.

115 Canadians remain imprisoned in China on a variety of charges.

In the wake of Meng’s release, China also allowed two American siblings, Victor and Cynthia Liu, to leave the country after barring their exit for the past three years. The exit ban was placed on them to entice their father, Liu Changming, who is wanted in a fraud case, to return to China and turn himself in.

In addition, the “detention, trial, and release of the two Michaels did not abide by Chinese law and criminal procedure,” Teng noted. In March, the two Canadians stood trial separately behind closed doors as Chinese authorities barred foreign diplomats from attending. Kovrig’s trial ended in March without a verdict, while a Chinese court sentenced Spavor to 11 years in prison on espionage charges in August.

“Beijing’s hostage diplomacy worked this time to a great extent though it is a pyrrhic victory,” Teng said. Beijing has shown itself “exactly like a rogue regime” in its tactic to get Meng back, along with other ongoing actions such as the crackdown on Hong Kong and the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang.

While Spavor and Kovrig have finally returned home to their families, 115 Canadians remain imprisoned in China on a variety of charges, according to Global Affairs Canada. That includes Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur imam from Xinjiang who moved to Canada in 2001 as a political refugee and obtained a Canadian passport. In 2006, Uzbek officials arrested Celil while traveling in Uzbekistan and sent him to China, where he was sentenced to life in prison.

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