World

What the winner of this election must do about China, Meng and the two Michaels

Terry Glavin: A thousand days after Kovrig and Spavor were imprisoned, we're in desperate need of moral clarity in Ottawa

One thousand days.

That’s how much time has passed since Xi Jinping’s Ministry of State Security kidnapped Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in a hostage-diplomacy bid to force Canada’s release of the jet-setting Vancouver socialite, Huawei billionaire heiress and Chinese Communist Party princess Meng Wanzhou.

Sunday marks that 1,000-days milestone, and no matter who ends up the winner after the votes are counted in the Sept. 20 federal election, the capitulation Beijing is attempting to extract from Canada in their case will overshadow every other foreign-policy tangle the Prime Minister’s Office faces.

That’s is because this isn’t just about a kidnapping.

It’s about untangling a catastrophe of cascading political misjudgments, sordid big-money relationships and an approach to the Chinese corporate state going back years that have ended up combining to isolate Justin Trudeau and an inner circle of old friends and advisers from Canada’s allies; from the overwhelming opinion of the majority of Canadians; and even from much of Trudeau’s own House of Commons caucus.

Meng was detained on a U.S. Justice Department extradition warrant while checking through Customs in Vancouver to pop into one of her Vancouver mansions during a Dec. 1, 2018 stopover on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Argentina, via Mexico. Meng is facing charges of bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy in what Justice Department lawyers in New York called a “strategy of lies and deceit” going back a decade, aimed at covering up Huawei’s evasions of U.S. sanctions on business dealings in Iran.

It’s worth remembering here that Meng is of that Liberal-friendly class of wealth-migration beneficiaries whose investments in Vancouver real estate have so distorted Vancouver’s housing markets in a spiral of unaffordability that successive federal governments have ignored. Far from being the mere passing-through traveller the Chinese embassy would have you believe is being victimized on behalf of Canada’s American overlords, Meng acquired permanent resident status in Canada 20 years ago, acquired a variety of properties, enrolled her children in Canadian universities, and generally enjoyed the high life here. Although she abandoned her permanent-resident status a decade ago, Meng has remained a fixture in Vancouver’s super-rich Chinese expatriate social scene. And since her arrest, she’s back full-time, with generous bail conditions allowing her to live in the luxury of a family-owned mansion in Vancouver’s posh Shaughnessy district.

Ten days after her detention at Vancouver International Airport, Kovrig, a diplomat-on-leave working as a researcher with the International Crisis Group, was picked up in Beijing. Spavor, an entrepreneur who focused on cultural and business exchanges in North Korea, was detained in Dandong. It took five months before the pair were formally arrested. By the time they were brought up on charges of espionage more than a year after that, in June, 2020, they’d already endured 557 days of interrogation and privation in special prison blocks where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day.

Spavor was convicted on espionage charges last month on evidence that is reported to consist of images of military aircraft that show up in photographs he’d taken at airports. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Kovrig was subjected to a similar day-long trial last March. The verdict in his case hasn’t been handed down.

For all the government’s brave talk about how the case of the Two Mikes has been its first and foremost foreign-policy priority ever since they were first abducted, the facts are unimpeachable: It’s been 1,000 days, and nothing Canada has done has slowed the descent of the two Michaels down the throat of Beijing’s justice system, which boasts a conviction rate approaching 100 percent.

Within months from now, if not weeks, the Meng Wanzhou melodrama will be moving past its B.C. Supreme Court phase. When that happens, the federal cabinet will come to a politically opportune moment, provided by a 1999 amendment to the Extradition Act, to bail from its necessarily non-interventionist “the courts must decide” standpoint. Trudeau’s circle is teeming with Beijing-friendly grandees who have been fiercely lobbying and making the rounds of the opinion-pages circuit to argue for Ottawa taking that opportunity to pay Beijing’s ransom, on the pretext that it might mean Kovrig and Spavor could get sprung from prison.

As cold as this must seem, Ottawa needs to hold to a standpoint that it adopted only reluctantly at the outset: the courts and the courts alone should decide Meng’s fate. Once Justice Heather Holmes has rendered her verdict in Vancouver and Meng’s legal options are exhausted, Ottawa should leave it to the courts, regardless of whether Meng is committed for extradition or not. And Canada’s political leaders, including the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole, should say this out loud, now.

It’s none of Canada’s business anyway. It’s Beijing and Huawei and Meng that have put Canada in this bind, not the other way around. From the beginning, Meng has been free to leave and face an American judge any time she wants. If the courts end up declining the U.S. extradition request, then fine, let her go home to Shenzhen. But for Ottawa to step in and game the system in Meng’s favour, Canada would be playing by Beijing’s rules. Instead, Canada should make it clear that this country will not sacrifice its sovereignty, or abandon its commitments to the principles established in international extradition law, or offer any ransom whatsoever, no matter how it’s framed or spun, to secure the Mikes’ release.

As for O’Toole’s Conservatives, at least they have a policy on how to cope with China. Cleaning up the mess of Canada-China relations is a line of work that dominates the Conservatives’ foreign policy platform.

Canada would strengthen its ties with Taiwan—the liberal-democratic state Xi keeps threatening to invade—and take up the cause of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, whose brutal oppression the Trudeau government has been loathe to even notice. Other China measures a Conservative government would adopt include: restraints on the operation of Chinese state-owned enterprises in Canada’s economy; a law barring senior Canadian officials from the commonplace practice of kick-starting their careers by jumping over to lucrative Chinese sinecures; collaboration with countries like Australia, South Korea and Japan as mutual defence against Beijing’s trade bullying; a ban on Huawei’s participation in Canada’s 5G internet connectivity rollout; a crackdown on the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration of Canadian institutions and its persistent intimidation of Chinese-Canadians; a suspension of the Canada-China Legislative Association.

As for a specific response to the Mikes’ imprisonment, O’Toole says a Conservative government would draw up a sanctions list under Canada’s Magnitsky law targeting the Xi Jinping himself, along with Chinese premier Li Keqiang, the chair of the Standing Committee of the China’s National Party Congress and the President of the Supreme People’s Court.

The Liberal platform is silent on China.

The Trudeau government first promised a new “framework” with “cornerstones” and “principles” governing new rules of engagement with China in December 2019. It never materialized. There’s no sign of it in the 82-page Liberal campaign platform Trudeau released this past Wednesday, either. The names Kovrig and Spavor appear nowhere in it. The word “China” occurs only once in the Liberal document, where the platform proposes that Canada should work to “protect Canadians and work closely with our friends, allies, and partners to respond to illegal and unacceptable behaviour by authoritarian states, including China, Russia and Iran.”

But that’s something the Trudeau government can claim it’s already done—to no effect at all. Around the 800th day of the Mikes’ captivity, Ottawa won the backing of nearly 60 United Nations member states in a declaration that condemns hostage-taking as a tool of “diplomacy.” It was a kind of petition. The word “China” doesn’t even appear in it.

Beyond paralysis, everything the Trudeau government has done on the China file suggests a policy of appeasement and issues-management. It’s been as though Beijing’s outrage against international norms is just an unpleasantness we need to somehow put behind us so that the Liberals’ conventional enthusiasm for deeper intimacies with the Chinese regime can resume in the work of enriching the corporations affiliated with the Canada-China Business Council.

Meanwhile, Kovrig and Spavor remain behind bars in China, while Meng Wanzhou shows up cheerily every now and then at the B.C. Supreme Court, which her blue-chip team of lawyers has been bogging down with a slew of legal challenges that have thus far proved as unsuccessful as anything the Trudeau government has done to secure the release of the Two Michaels.

It can’t go on like this. Canada needs to show the Xi regime that it can no longer expect to buy off Canadians, bully Canadians, and kidnap Canadians when it doesn’t get its way. It is tragic and viciously unjust that this burden is being borne by Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. A thousand days is 999 days too long.