China's 'coercive diplomacy' threatens its relationships with the West, says Trudeau

Trudeau says his government and all Canadians are behind Spavor, Kovrig as they face 'secret' trials in China

Posted: March 19, 2021
Last Updated: March 19, 2021

People hold signs calling on China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou in 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says China's treatment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor threatens both "respect for the rule of law" and Beijing's relationships with Western nations.

"China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians. It is about the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in," Trudeau said today during his daily media briefing.

Trudeau also told the family members of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor today that their country is behind them after Spavor was hauled before a Chinese court to face allegations of espionage.


"Let me be very clear," Trudeau said. "Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings."

Trudeau said that Spavor's court hearing took place earlier today but did not end in a verdict. Kovrig's hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Trudeau thanked diplomats from "a number of our allied countries, including the United States," who showed up outside Spavor's hearing to demonstrate "global solidarity in this case." He said he was dismayed that they were not allowed into the proceedings.

Trudeau criticized China for holding Spavor's hearing in "secret," saying that refusing to let representatives from Canada and other allies into the courtroom made it impossible to determine what was happening.

"One of the challenges around the lack of transparency on that process is it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair," Trudeau said.


China violating international obligations, lawyer says

James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer and legal counsel for the Spavor family, said China's failure to allow for effective legal representation is a violation of its international obligations.

He cited Article 14 (3) (b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees a defendant in a criminal proceeding the right to have "adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing."

"Chinese defence counsel is unable to adequately prepare for trial, which seriously impacts the procedural and substantive due process rights of Michael," Zimmerman said in a statement.

"The continued unjust and arbitrary detention depriving them of their liberty is both unfair, disproportionate and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency and lack of substantial access to defence counsel."

China continues to push back against claims that it detained Kovrig and Spavor without cause, insisting the "lawful rights" of the two men were being respected.

"I would like to stress once again that China is a country with rule of law. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested and prosecuted in accordance with law for suspected crimes undermining China's national security," said a statement posted on the website of China's embassy in Canada today.


Trudeau rejected that claim, telling reporters that Canada would continue to push China to be more transparent.

"We will continue to work tirelessly to bring them home as soon as possible. I also want to thank our many, many international partners for their solidarity and support," he added.

Watch: Trudeau says it's 'disappointing' that Michael Spavor's hearing was kept secret from Canadian officials:

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it's "disappointing" that Canadian officials could not attend the court hearing for Canadian Michael Spavor in China.  1:32

Detained after arrest of Huawei executive

Spavor and Kovrig were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver. The U.S. is seeking her extradition to face fraud charges related to her company's dealings with Iran.


The two Canadians have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail. They were charged in June 2020 with spying under China's national security laws.

Spavor, an entrepreneur with a North Korea-related business, was charged with spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets. Kovrig, an analyst and former diplomat, was charged with spying in collaboration with Spavor.

Watch: Canada, allies need to consider sanctions or diplomatic expulsions against China: John Bolton:

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Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton tells Power & Politics that Canada and its allies need to be ready to impose sanctions or to expel Chinese diplomats over the detainment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor: "If they're prepared to try this kind of thing now, imagine how they're going to behave in 10 years or 20 years?"  2:21

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been meeting with China's most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska.

Former U.S. ambassador to the UN and national security adviser John Bolton told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he expects the plight of the two Canadians was addressed at the meeting.


"It's America's obligation to stand with its allies against this kind of Chinese behaviour," he told host Vassy Kapelos. "It's unacceptable. We need to explain that to them and if they don't seem to get the point, we have to be prepared to take stronger action."

Bolton said that all Western countries and their allies should bar Chinese diplomats from their territories until Spavor and Kovrig are free. 

"I think where we would both be best served is getting all of our NATO allies and many others to take parallel steps," he said. 

You can watch full episodes of Power & Politics on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

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The closed court hearing for Canadian Michael Spavor, detained by China since late 2018 on suspicion of espionage, ended Friday, March 19, 2021, after about two hours with no ruling. Here, police officers stand guard and control the traffic outside the Intermediate People's Court, site of the trial, in Dandong, China. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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Journalists surround a police van as it arrives at the court building in Dandong. Spavor is one of two Canadians who were both detained in December 2018, days after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the airport in Vancouver at the request of the United States. (Ken Moritsugu/The Associated Press)
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Police officers secure a side entrance following the arrival of police vehicles at the Intermediate People's Court on Friday. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
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In a show of support for Spavor, foreign diplomats from various countries wait near the Intermediate People's Court ahead of the trial. (Ken Moritsugu/The Associated Press)
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Police officers stand guard at a court entrance. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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Journalists film as security officers guard an entrance to the court building in Dandong. (Ken Moritsugu/The Associated Press)
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Police vehicles exit the Intermediate People's Court where Spavor stood trial. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires of the Canadian Embassy in China, and other foreign diplomats stand outside the Intermediate People's Court. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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People walk in front of the court building where Spavor's trial took place in a closed hearing that ended with no decision. (AFP via Getty Images)


Peter Zimonjic
Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

With files from Philip Ling