Detained Canadian Michael Kovrig clinging to 'sense of humour,' boss says

Michael Kovrig, one of the Canadians detained in China, is trying to hang on to his sense of humour as the anniversary of his imprisonment approaches.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained one year ago

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, are in Chinese custody, both having been charged with spying.
Michael Spavor, left, and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, right, were taken into custody in China in mid-December 2018. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

Michael Kovrig, one of the Canadians detained in China, is trying to hang on to his sense of humour as the anniversary of his imprisonment approaches, according to his boss Robert Malley.

Kovrig and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor have been in a Chinese jail since Dec. 10, 2018. 

Malley, the head of the International Crisis Group, says his employee is holding up, basing his assessment on what he's heard from Canadian officials who have visited him. 

"He's strong, he's resilient," he said in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics on Friday, adding he has a "sense of humour and a sense of perspective." 

Malley said one year later, Kovrig is still puzzled as to why he's detained. 

"He is obviously eager to get out. And, as I said, doesn't know why he is where he is and doesn't know at what point the Chinese authorities will let him go free."

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The detention of the two Canadians is widely viewed as retaliation for Canada's arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1 of last year.

The chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face fraud charges for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran.

"When it comes to China, the government's absolute priority is the welfare of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained," Adam Austen, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement to CBC News.

"The government has been clear about our principles, our commitment to the rule of law, and our deep concern for our citizens who have been detained. We will continue to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians."

Meng living in Vancouver mansion, Canadians in prison

Meng is out on bail and living in a luxury Vancouver home, as her extradition hearing approaches before a B.C. court.

Malley told the Canadian Press he wishes Meng no ill-will, but that there's no comparison between how she and Kovrig and Spavor are being treated.

The Canadians have been allowed about one consular visit per month by Canadian diplomats, but they have been denied access to lawyers and all others.

Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, warns the situation grows more dire as the months wear on. 

"If we continue to make no response of any meaningful nature beyond lip service of our concerns, we appear to be giving tacit consent to China to continue to violate the international norms of diplomacy," he said.

"And by not doing anything, we make the situation worse as time goes on."

Ways to put pressure on China

Burton suggested the Canadian government could take measures like revoking visas for Chinese students, pulling Canadian coaches out of helping the Chinese winter Olympics teams and imposing financial sanctions on high-level Chinese officials.

"I think that we have for too long been too tolerant of China violating its commitments to these institutions and this is the price that we're paying for sacrificing our security and commitment to the international rule of law for perceived economic concessions by a repressive Chinese regime."

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, agreed things could get much worse for the two Canadians and the next moves by the Canadian government should be stronger.

"It's important for Canadians to realize how the Chinese see this. The Chinese see themselves as the aggrieved party in this," he told CBC News on Sunday. 

"China's always acting in its own interests I think we need to act more in our interests."

While experts, politicians and diplomats plot out a path forward for the Canada-China relationship and the welfare of the two Michaels, the detainees are still living in difficult conditions. 

Malley says Kovrig's approach to the difficult situation is astonishing and impressive. And he says his company hasn't given up hope for his release.

"Our efforts are twofold. Number one, to get them out as soon as possible, but also for as long as he's there to improve his conditions of detention which should be very different from those they are today," Malley told host Vassy Kapelos.

With files from Olivia Stefanovich and the Canadian Press