Today's court decision on Meng Wanzhou's extradition could rattle the Canada-China relationship
Even if tech executive walks free, it wouldn't necessarily mean freedom for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor
No matter how the ruling goes today in the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, it will have an impact on the fraught relationship between Canada and China.
A B.C. court is expected to issue a ruling today on the question of so-called "double criminality" in Meng's extradition case — whether what Meng is accused of in the United States would be a crime in Canada. The judge could end up ruling in her favour, although Canada could appeal.
Tuesday, China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian issued a warning to Canada in his daily news conference.
"China's position on the Meng Wanzhou case is consistent and clear," he said. "The U.S. and Canada abused their bilateral extradition treaty and arbitrarily took compulsory measures against a Chinese citizen without cause. This is entirely a serious political incident that grossly violates the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen."
Zhao — who has used his Twitter account to promote a conspiracy theory claiming that a visiting U.S. military sports team deliberately released the novel coronavirus in China — continued:
"The Canadian side should immediately correct its mistake, release Ms. Meng and ensure her safe return to China at an early date so as to avoid any continuous harm to China-Canada relations."
Optimism in party circles
The Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote this week that "legal experts are cautiously optimistic" and say that "Meng is 'highly likely' to be freed from a purely legal perspective if Canada truly has the judicial system completely independent from any political influence, as it always boasts."
Lynette Ong, director of China initiatives at the University of Toronto's Munk School, said Chinese officials seem genuinely to believe that the facts of the case, and Canadian law, favour Meng.
"I think they are expecting a favourable outcome," she told CBC News. "I think that would be seen as a rightful and fair decision" in Beijing, rather than just a capitulation to Chinese pressure, because Meng's lawyers have done a good job of raising doubts about the federal Department of Justice's claim that Meng violated Canadian laws, she added.
On the other hand, Ong said, a ruling against Meng would be sure to renew Chinese allegations that Canada's courts are not independent.
"Put it this way — no court in China is independent of the government. Therefore, the dominant mindset is that the Canadian courts are not independent either, not independent of the Canadian government and also not independent of the U.S. government," she said.
Prominent Chinese academic and dissident Xiao Qiang agrees. "They see everything as politics, rather than an independent judicial system."
Xiao Qiang is director of the Counter-Power Lab at UC Berkeley, which studies censorship, disinformation and propaganda with a strong focus on China.
"If the result is what China's government welcomes, then they will interpret it as their pressure on Canada worked. If the result is not what China wanted, then they will see that as the Canadian government not giving them what they want."
Reciprocity not guaranteed
The Chinese side may be optimistic, but any Canadian hoping that a favourable decision in the Meng case might lead China to quickly release Canadian detainees Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would have found little to celebrate in Zhao's statement yesterday.
"They were involved in activities endangering China's national security," Zhao said in his statement. "In accordance with law, China's judicial authorities have been dealing with the cases independently and ensuring their legal rights. China urges the Canadian side to respect the spirit of the rule of law and China's judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks."
Chinese officials have steadfastly refused to acknowledge suggestions that Kovrig and Spavor are, in effect, hostages for Meng. Beijing's representatives — including Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu — also have declined to discuss the vast differences in the treatment experienced by Meng and the two Canadians.
Kovrig and Spavor are being held alone in solitary confinement without access to lawyers or family members. Meng, meanwhile, took advantage of her generous bail conditions on Saturday to stage a celebratory photo shoot outside the B.C. Supreme Court.
Quid pro quo ... or no?
Beijing has insisted that the two Canadians were arrested on legitimate national security grounds, and repeatedly denied they were being held in retaliation for Meng.
China has been censured by several other countries over the case, including the U.S., U.K., Germany and Australia.
Xiao Qiang says it would now be difficult for Beijing to follow Meng's release with a swift liberation of Kovrig and Spavor without conceding that they were, after all, just bargaining chips.
"For that reason China may not release them."
China likely would want something like Richard Nixon's "decent interval" to pass before engaging in such a naked transaction.
Ong said the next steps China takes will be determined partly by the groundwork Canadian diplomats in Beijing have done to prepare for today's ruling.
"If Meng walks free, the two Michaels need to be released, they need to make sure that end of the bargain is fulfilled too," she said.
"I don't know what Ottawa is doing, but they really should be talking to their Beijing counterparts to discuss different scenarios of this case, and the implications for the fate of the two Michaels. I hope they are doing that."
CBC News put that question to Global Affairs Canada. Spokesman Adam Austen responded: "While we cannot comment on a matter before the courts, we are closely following the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou currently in its judicial phase.
"When it comes to China, our top priority continues to be securing the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and calling for clemency for Canadians facing the death penalty in China, including Robert Schellenberg. We will continue to advocate on their behalf."
China's authoritarian government has been acting lately like an organization that knows it is living through a pivotal moment in its history. It has seen both danger and opportunity in the COVID-19 pandemic and has moved forcefully to forestall the former (as demonstrated by its PPE diplomacy around the world) and seize the latter — in Hong Kong, where it has proposed new national security laws that many see as an attempt to crush Hong Kong's autonomy.
But the party has never lost sight of the Meng case.
Lately, Beijing has made a modest effort at mending fences with Canada as part of its attempt to bend the narrative of COVID-19 to one of international collaboration.
"China and Canada have been cooperating in the anti-epidemic fight," opined the Global Times in its editorial Tuesday, "and are also cooperating on developing COVID-19 medicines and vaccines ... In February, when China was hit hard by the virus, the Trudeau government provided 16 tons of anti-virus supplies. Later in March, the Bank of China returned the favour ...
"Moreover, Canada has been keeping a rational attitude toward the U.S.'s well-calculated campaign of 'holding China accountable' for the COVID-19 pandemic," it said.
American hostility growing
Still, today's ruling comes at a time when China increasingly feels under pressure on the world stage.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden appear to be trying to out-do one another in taking a tough approach to China, with Trump accusing Biden of having given China "EVERYTHING they wanted, including rip-off Trade Deals."
Biden in turn accused Trump of turning a blind eye to China's rights abuses and breaches of past agreements.
"It is no surprise China's government believes it can act with impunity to violate its commitments. The administration's protests are too little, too late — and Donald Trump has conspicuously had very little to say," Biden said in a statement.
And U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien has continued to accuse China of perpetuating its own version of the Chernobyl cover-up with COVID-19. "We want good relations with China and with the Chinese people, but unfortunately, we're seeing just action after action by the Chinese Communist Party that makes it difficult," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.
The hits keep coming
Meanwhile, in the U.K., Meng Wanzhou's company Huawei (and China) suffered a major setback this week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to reverse an earlier decision allowing the Chinese firm to participate in the building of the country's 5G system.
Up to 50 members of his own party were set to rebel against his government's proposal to allow Huawei to participate up to a market share of 35 per cent. Johnson now says Huawei's share will be reduced to zero by 2023.
The threatened backbench revolt, and the government's response to it, reflect the darkening mood toward China provoked by the Communist Party's perceived efforts to leverage the pandemic for strategic and economic gains.
The U.S., which already had banned Huawei from its 5G network, went further on May 15 when it expanded the Commerce Department's foreign direct product rule. "We will not tolerate efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to undermine the privacy of our citizens or the integrity of next-generation networks worldwide," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
"Huawei is an untrustworthy vendor and a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, beholden to its orders," Pompeo said, a charge Huawei's founder, Meng's father, has denied.
Canadians souring on China, Huawei
In Canada, too, the public's attitude toward China has darkened dramatically, especially during the season of coronavirus.
The University of British Columbia has tracked a decline in positive feelings toward China over the past two years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed China's public standing in Canada even lower. According to a more recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute, just 14 per cent of Canadians have a favourable impression of China — and 85 per cent believe its government has not been honest about the pandemic.
Recent events also have affected how Canadians feel about Huawei. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds said they wanted the company barred from Canada's 5G networks. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Angus Reid poll found that opposition had risen to more than four-fifths.
Lynette Ong said China may win the battle over Meng's extradition only to find that it has lost a larger war for world public opinion — and is losing market share for its flagship company.
"I think there's a considerable scar. I think Canadian society has a memory," she said.
"In Canadian society, the pendulum has swung so much against China in the past year and a half, and even more so under this pandemic. And I really doubt it's going to be healed any time soon, even if the two Michaels are released.
"But if Meng walks free and the two Michaels are not released ... I don't know. It would be an uproar."