Beijing has denied taking political hostages. Experts say the fates of two Canadians suggest otherwise
Spavor, an entrepreneur with business ties in North Korea, was sentenced Wednesday to a prison term of 11 years for spying and illegally providing state secrets overseas. But the Chinese court also said he would be deported, without giving details on when, or how.
Spavor’s fate, observers say, could hinge on the results of a court case unfolding on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, as a Canadian judge mulls over whether to proceed with the extradition of a Chinese tech executive wanted by the United States for fraud charges related to alleged Iran sanction violations.
Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver in December 2018. Nine days later, Spavor and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained in China — a move widely interpreted as political retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
“China has been practicing hostage diplomacy for a long time, and even more so under President Xi Jinping. It’s a way of trying to put pressure on the Canadian authorities to release Meng Wanzhou and dismiss the extradition case,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, chair professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It’s clear to everyone the timing is no coincidence. The Chinese legal system is closely controlled by the Communist Party and has little judicial independence — it’s easy to impose useful and appropriate timing to maximize pressure on the US and Canada,” Cabestan said.
For its part, Ottawa has denounced Spavor’s sentencing as “absolutely unacceptable and unjust.”
“The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday. “We will not rest until they are safely brought home.”
But legal experts — both inside and outside China — say it’s hard to say when Spavor will be able to return to Canada.
Mo Shaoping, a prominent criminal lawyer in Beijing, said according to Chinese law, deportation should only take place after completion of the prison sentence. “But in practice, there are also foreigners who were deported before finishing their main sentence,” he said.
“Court judgments often state that deportation should take place after the sentence has been served. But politics and diplomacy can decide when that has been accomplished,” he wrote on Twitter.
With that ambiguity, observers say, Beijing wants to keep some leverage on Ottawa and Washington.
“Clearly the Chinese authorities are keeping as many cards in their hands as possible, before the Meng Wanzhou case is clear… That’s why the other Michael, Michael Kovrig, has not yet been sentenced,” Cabestan said.
But it is not at all certain that Beijing’s “hostage diplomacy” could work. Canada is a country with robust rule of law and judicial independence, and Trudeau has repeatedly refused to consider any trade of Spavor and Kovrig for Meng.
“PRC tacticians may think that their blatant manipulation of China’s legal system is cleverly designed to maximize its impact on Canadian justice, but the PRC leadership seems oblivious to what it is showing the world — that Xi Jinping’s vaunted preaching about China’s practice of the ‘rule of law’ is cynical nonsense,” Cohen wrote, referring to China by the abbreviation of its formal name the People’s Republic of China.
Cabestan said Beijing could also be doing this for another reason — to satisfy nationalist sentiment at home, and to give the impression to the Chinese public that there is no difference between the legal systems of China and the West.
“They want to create that false perception of the Western legal system, in order to better legitimize their own,” he said.
But the gap between the Canadian and Chinese legal systems cannot be starker when comparing the conditions faced by Meng and the two Michaels. Meng, having been granted bail, lives in her seven-bedroom mansion in Vancouver and enjoys visits from friends and family. She can also move around Vancouver with a GPS tracker on her ankle.
Spavor and Kovrig, meanwhile, remain detained with limited access to consular officials and lawyers. Neither has seen their family in more than two years.
Meng appeared in court in designer clothes, defended by a team of prominent lawyers in hearings open to the public and media. The two Canadians’ trials were held behind closed doors and concluded within a day. As of today, little detail is known about their alleged crimes and no evidence has been provided in support of Spavor’s verdict.
In a statement Thursday, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying defended China’s judicial system and accused Ottawa of “double standards” and “gravely interfering in China’s judicial sovereignty” in condemning Spavor’s sentencing.
“China is a country with rule of law. Judicial authorities treat all the criminals as equals and handle all cases in strict accordance with law, regardless of the criminals’ nationality. No foreign identity can be the amulet,” Hua said.
Spavor and Kovrig are not the only foreigners held in China on espionage charges.
“We are particularly concerned that one year into her detention, there remains a lack of transparency about the reasons for Ms. Cheng’s detention,” Payne said.
Photo of the day
Covid testing blitz: The city of Yangzhou, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, has become a fresh hotspot in the country’s latest coronavirus outbreak. The city of 4.5 million residents launched a sixth round of mass testing on Wednesday, with more than 4,000 medical workers deployed for virus control and prevention measures, according to state media Xinhua. In response to the outbreak, authorities have postponed the National Games, China’s biggest annual sports event, which was to start on September 15.
A Swiss biologist who doesn’t exist
In late July, Chinese state media published several pieces decrying the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of Covid-19, all quoting a Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards.
There was just one problem: Edwards doesn’t seem to exist.
The embassy added that no Swiss citizen was registered under that name, and no academic articles in the biology field cited under that name. The now-deleted Facebook account was created on July 24, made its one and only post shortly after, and had only three friends — all markers of a fake account.
Since the embassy’s statement, state-run media has quietly removed the articles citing Edwards, and scrubbed all mention of him from the few that remain online.
The incident highlights the deluge of online disinformation and misinformation that has propagated during the pandemic, from vaccine hoaxes to fake cures — as well as the rising tensions and ongoing blame game between the US and China over the virus’ origins.
The WHO, meanwhile, has urged both sides to work together for the greater good of global public health. In a statement on Thursday, the organization refuted China’s accusations of bias, stressing that “WHO is only focused on science, providing solutions and building solidarity.”
“The search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring,” it added.
China’s get-tough approach to big business will continue for years
China’s big crackdown on business appears far from over.
Top leaders from the ruling Communist Party this week laid out a blueprint for how they plan to continue tightening the regulatory screws on companies over the next five years.
The country’s latest five-year plan includes promises to strengthen rules that would clamp down on monopolistic behavior and regulate technological innovation. Authorities also called on “law enforcement” to take action in areas of “vital interests of people,” including financial services, education and tutoring.
The policy map — jointly released by the Party’s central committee and the State Council — was vague on the specific actions that authorities want regulators to take.
But it suggests Beijing’s unprecedented crackdown on private enterprise, which began late last year, could last for some time. China’s five-year plans are the cornerstones of economic and social policy in the country, and the latest plan runs through 2025.
“The people’s growing need for a better life has put forward new and higher requirements for the construction of a government under the rule of law,” officials wrote in the policy paper, stressing the need to regulate parts of the economy necessary for “social fairness” or “public good.”
The directive comes during a time of massive upheaval for Chinese industries ranging from tech and financial services to private tutoring. An onslaught of regulations on private business has rattled global investors and triggered fears about the future of innovation in China, as well as the ability for companies to tap capital markets.
The government has cited a need to safeguard national security and protect the interests of its people. Regulators have widely blamed the private sector for creating socioeconomic problems that could potentially destabilize society and affect the party’s grip on power.
The clampdown has wiped out more than $1 trillion in market value for many powerful Chinese companies.
— By Laura He
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