China’s unofficial reaction to the Canadian arrest, at the request of the United States, of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was, in a word, brutal. Outraged by what it characterized as the interference by U.S. and Canadian officials in Chinese international business, Beijing snatched Robert Lloyd Schellenberg — a Canadian previously convicted of drug smuggling by a Chinese court and sentenced to 15 years in prison — from his cell and retried him on grounds that the sentence was too lenient. In a single-day trial last Monday, he was sentenced to death.
Ms. Meng, whose father is CEO of Huawei, the enormous Chinese telecommunication and consumer electronics company, has along with the company itself been accused by U.S. authorities of violating international sanctions on Iran. The company, along with the Chinese government, denied the allegations.
Several other Canadians were detained by the Chinese government in the weeks following Ms. Meng’s arrest on December 1st, although most were subsequently let go. At least two of them, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, are being held indefinitely in the Chinese government’s extrajudicial detention system and have been accused of violating the country’s national security.
According to Canada’s Ambassador to China John McCallum, there is no concrete trial date or plans for subsequent legal action against the two, who he visited in early January. In detention, said McCallum, the two are subject to hours of interrogation every day. “It’s not a fixed number, but on the order of four hours a day,” said McCallum. “This could go on for up to six months under the Chinese system. It’s what they call an extra-judicial system so those are the conditions under which they are detained.” What’s more, he said, the two have no access to a lawyer and are granted consular access just once a month.
When asked whether, in light of these arrests and the Schellenberg retrial, it was time for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping, McCallum deferred, saying that the “time will come when it’s most appropriate.” In the meantime, the government has issued a travel advisory warning Canadians not to visit China for fear of arbitrary arrest.
Experts have questioned the strategic wisdom of the Chinese government’s decision to take such drastic measures against foreigners in the country, suggesting that it may ward off potential business partners as well as political allies. “[Schellenberg’s retrial] is denting China’s international reputation in the long term,” said Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, speaking to CNN. “So even in the short term it could look tough and strong, I think in the long term it is paying a huge cost.”
“China doesn’t want to look weak…partially for domestic reasons it needs to assure its strong leadership,” she went on. “There are people in China who are unhappy with the arrest of Meng which is why [the government] has been very, very tough against Canada.”
Indeed, despite its outspoken defense of its action and condemnation, in the same breath, of the Canadian government’s arrest of Ms. Meng, Beijing has made little effort to hide the plainly reactionary nature of the arrests and of the death sentence issued by a court last week. In a January op-ed, China’s Ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye went so far as to call the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor acts of “self-defense” by the Chinese government.
In a brief statement given to a group of reporters, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government was “deeply concerned” by what he called the decision by the Chinese government to begin “arbitrarily” applying the death penalty. Trudeau also argued that the Chinese government was mixing its commercial interests with “political positioning and consequences,” as indeed Ambassador Lu warned that the Chinese government would take retribution if Canada barred Huawei’s telecommunication network from the country’s new 5G network.
In response to statements from Trudeau and his government, Beijing struck back with sarcasm and indignation, accusing the government of having arrested Meng for “no reason.” “I think your foreign minister may be in a hurry, and can’t help speaking without thinking,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, responding to Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s characterization of the death sentence as “inhumane and inappropriate.”
Ambassador Lu wrote an angry op-ed in a Canadian newspaper after the arrests, accusing the Canadian government of failing to treat Chinese citizens in a “humanitarian manner.” “The reason why some people are arrogantly adopting double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy,” Lu wrote. “What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law.”
The Trump administration has offered an uncharacteristically soft-spoken defense of the Canadian government, being as it is that Meng was apprehended at the request of the United States and is awaiting extradition. A statement released by the U.S. State Department echoed the line taken by Trudeau on the issue, expressing “concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals.” The issue, however, comes at a particularly tense moment in U.S.-China relations, as the dueling administrations are facing off in January trade talks in an effort to ease the punitive tariffs they’ve raised against each other. As such, the extradition of Ms. Meng and the fate of the Canadian prisoners in China may very well rest on the progress made by trade negotiators this month.