For Canadians, Two Michaels’ Ordeal Exposed ‘Dark Side of China’

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Trials held in secrecy for two Canadians imprisoned more than two years ago in China have concluded, with official verdicts to be announced “at a chosen time,” according to official Chinese statements.

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Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in December 2018 in apparent retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is fighting a request for her extradition to the United States.

The fate of the “Two Michaels,” as the prisoners have become known, has shaped Canadians’ understanding of what China is and isn’t, one of Ottawa’s former ambassadors to Beijing and a former senior law enforcement official told VOA.

FILE – Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being detained by China, outside British Columbia Supreme Court, in Vancouver, March 6, 2019.

The trial for Spavor took place last Friday in northeastern Dandong. The only news Chinese authorities released was that the trial did take place and that a verdict was pending.

Kovrig’s trial took place on Monday in Beijing, but no one knew “how and when Mr. Kovrig was brought to court, what evidence was brought against him and what opportunities he had to speak in his own defense,” Canada’s Globe and Mail correspondent in Beijing reported.

“In terms of Canada’s future relationship with China, I don’t think it will get back to normal; it’ll be a much more selective approach, now that we have seen the dark side of China,” Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing from 2012 to 2016, said in a phone interview.

“We have learned a lot in the last two years about what’s really going on in China,” he said, adding “it has become impossible for Western countries to continue to give the benefit of doubt to China.”

Saint-Jacques pointed to a recent poll by a Canadian nonprofit organization that showed more than 70% of Canadians holding a negative view of China.

Policemen wearing face masks patrol at the compound of No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing, Monday, March 22, 2021. The... FILE – Policemen wearing face masks patrol at the compound of No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing on March 22, 2021, the day the trial of Canadian Michael Kovrig took place.

No doubt Canada will have to continue to engage with China, Saint-Jacques said, but “the mood has turned around, the government will want to be a lot more prudent in its relations with China.”

Part of that prudence, the former ambassador to Beijing said, lies in knowing that China isn’t the only country that holds leverage. “Back in 2018 [after the two Michaels were detained by Chinese authorities], I suggested that we kick out all of the Chinese athletes training in Canada for the Beijing Winter Olympics, to show our displeasure.”

That wasn’t done, he said, because the Canadian government believed playing nice would soften the Chinese official position and get their citizens released. “That clearly didn’t work,” he said.

Canada also needs to understand it has leverage through its trading relationship with China, Saint-Jacques said.

“China is our second [largest] trade partner, but in terms of our exports, we export just about over 4% of our total exports to China,” he said.

Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou returns to court following a lunch break in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 22, 2021. FILE – Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou returns to court following a lunch break in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 22, 2021.

“In 2019, we paid a heavy price after the arrest Meng incident. We lost billions of dollars of trade,” Saint-Jacques said. “But if you look at our trade last year [in 2020], our exports to China increased by 8%. … I would say that China will always need our commodities. This should give us a bit more leeway to deal with China.”

Saint-Jacques said the Canadian government could also look more closely at China’s investments in Canada, taking into account their security and strategic implications. He said he would like to see Ottawa deal more firmly with Chinese interference in Canadian society, including rampant espionage activities.

Calvin Chrustie, a former senior operations officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and currently managing partner at Interventis Global, has followed relations between Canada and China closely. He said he’s encouraged by recent public statements made by senior officials from the Canadian intelligence and security community.

“The director of [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service], the commissioner of the RCMP and other national security experts have, in an unprecedented way, come forward and clearly articulated the concern that they have for China for the first time in decades,” he said.

Diplomats from various countries including Jim Nickel (C), deputy head of mission of the Canadian embassy in Beijing, wait... FILE – Diplomats from various countries wait outside of the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court, where the trial of Canadian businessman Michael Spavor is being held, in Dandong in China’s northeast Liaoning province, March 19, 2021.

Inasmuch as “this tragic incident of state-facilitated kidnapping of Canadians has had devastating impact on the families and loved ones, it has awoken Canada in terms of the serious threat China poses and has refreshed Canadian strategic thinking,” Chrustie told VOA in a phone interview from Vancouver.

Chrustie and Saint-Jacques both believe Washington now holds the key to resolving the issue of the two Michaels in conjunction with the Meng extradition request.

U.S. officials have told Canadian media that the Biden administration is reviewing U.S.-China relations, and decisions regarding the cases are unlikely before that review concludes in a matter of months.

In the meantime, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced that he had met with Canadian officials on the eve of the high-level meeting he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken held with top Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, a week ago.



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