People hold placards calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig: SCMP via Reuters

  • The suffering of the two Canadians, in detention since December 2018, makes a powerful case for Ottawa to prize pragmatism and sympathy over politics
  • Should Canada choose to, a sound legal case can be made for the release of the Huawei executive wanted by a US determined to blunt China’s tech challenge

South China Morning Post (SCMP)
2 July 2020 03:00 AM

by Dr David Zweig

A heated debate is raging across Canada. Should the Canadian government give in to China’s “hostage diplomacy” and release Meng Wanzhou, before a British Columbia court decides whether she should be extradited to the US to face charges of bank and wire fraud?

Or should Canada defend its principles and, despite the incarceration of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for more than 560 days, let the hearing go forward?

I worked closely with Kovrig after he moved to Hong Kong, jointly briefing foreign diplomats and sharing membership in several study groups. I also regularly attended his well-informed and thoughtful presentations on China’s views of Northeast Asia, particularly North Korea, his brief with the International Crisis Group and what he had been researching when the Chinese hauled him in.

So, when I recently read his letters from prison, heard his ailing father’s plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do something, and read how his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, lauded his courage, I was moved to tears.

As his friend, I must speak out on his, and Michael Spavor’s, plight and publicly call for Meng’s release, if that is what is necessary to bring these Canadians home. The tide is turning, and it is time to act.

First, a new opinion by a triad of Canada’s best legal minds argues that, in his role as Canada’s justice minister, rather than as its attorney general, David Lametti has the legal authority to terminate America’s extradition request and let Meng go.

Not only is that legal, but I would argue it is the moral thing for the prime minister to do to end the suffering of these two Canadian citizens and their families.

But a chorus from Canada’s “right”, particularly from the Macdonald Laurier Institute, which dominates Canada’s media on this issue, argues that we cannot indulge China’s hostage diplomacy, as concessions would only convince the Chinese of the efficacy of such undiplomatic foreign policy behaviour.

Former Canadian ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques, usually a moderate voice, has also advocated taking a tough stance.

n the view of this group, we cannot reward bullying, even if our principled stand means Kovrig and Spavor spend the next decade in a Chinese prison. What is their suffering, and that of their families, when Canadian principles are on the line? In such a view, Canada’s international stature and global influence depends on its reputation for fairness, democracy and due process.

But have they forgotten that although Canada imposed and maintained sanctions for four years, far longer than its allies, as punishment for the Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy protests on June 4, 1989, these sanctions totally failed to alter China’s egregious behaviour? Bad policy in the name of principle failed then, just as it is failing now.

But is this case one of principle or politics? The Americans could solve this problem by following common practice; impose heavy fines on Huawei for contravening US laws against trading with Iran and drop charges against Meng.

In 2012, when HSBC was found guilty of failing to prevent money laundering, they paid a huge sum of US$1.9 billion in settlement, but no officials were arrested or tried.

But for US President Donald Trump, the Meng affair is nothing but politics, part of his government’s efforts to block China’s technological challenge to American global hegemony. In fact, in December 2018, Trump further politicised the Meng affair when he said that he could overrule the US courts if it would help solve the US-China trade war.

In fact, maybe the Trump administration does not want to see Kovrig and Spavor freed as their incarceration keeps China’s misbehaviour in the news, just as the US is trying to persuade its allies to eschew any deals with Huawei, even as it reinforces Trump’s vilification of China.

While Canada’s China hawks are unlikely to travel to that nation over the next decade, what will happen to the many Canadians who make their livelihoods through interactions with China, when Meng is extradited to the US? Canadians residing in China or frequent visitors there will certainly be at risk.

And who among us wants to be in China the day the British Columbia court decides to extradite Meng to the US? In fact, how long will it be before Canadians will feel safe in China after we ship her off to New York to stand trial?

Thus, the moment seems ripe for a deal. On June 24, China’s foreign ministry displayed the perfidiousness of their “hostage diplomacy” by tacitly admitting that they arrested Kovrig and Spavor to gain leverage, suggesting that, under proper conditions, they could drop their charges.

Second, Canadian legal specialists have given Canada an exit strategy from this horribly political dilemma in which Trump has placed the nation.

Finally, Canadian public opinion may have shifted, recognising that there are times when pragmatism and sympathy are far more valuable than principle in international relations. In their view, it is time to let the people go.

David Zweig is Professor Emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Transnational China Consulting Limited in Hong Kong. He began studying China in 1968 at York University

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