As It Happens

Ex-ambassador calls for 'more forceful approach' with China after detained Canadians charged

A former Canadian ambassador says Canada needs to get a lot tougher with China after Beijing charged two detained Canadian men with spying. 

Beijing charged Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor with spying

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, have been charged in China with spying. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

A former Canadian ambassador says Canada needs to get a lot tougher with China after Beijing charged two detained Canadian men with spying.

Chinese prosecutors on Friday charged Michael Kovrig with spying for state secrets and intelligence, and Michael Spavor with spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

The two men were detained by Chinese authorities after the RCMP arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, in December 2018 at the Vancouver airport. She faces extradition to the U.S. on allegations of fraud related to trade with Iran.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, says the new charges will make it even harder for Canada to secure the men's release. 

Here is part of his conversation with As t Happens host Carol Off. 

I know that you actually know Michael Kovrig. How concerned are you about China's decision to charge these two men?

I am very concerned because I know that their ordeal will continue for quite some time.

The announcement that was made today, in fact, will further complicate things, because I expect the Chinese government to tell us, "Don't ask us to interfere in a legal process. Don't you know that China is a country governed by the rule of law?"

And if they adhere to the schedule that is in the criminal procedural law of China, it will take between 15 and 24 months before they are sentenced. And we know already that the sentence could be from 10 years to life in prison.

And I think that, based on the comments made earlier today by the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that these are very serious charges, that I wouldn't be surprised if they get a life sentence.

Trudeau 'disappointed' that China charged two Canadians

2 years ago
Duration 3:34
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government has employed a "range of tactics and actions" to help Canadians experiencing consular challenges around the world and that Canada is using "public and private measures" to bring home Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians detained in China and charged with spying.

And how likely is it that they will be convicted?

In the Chinese system, once you are formally charged, you are found guilty 99.9 per cent of the time. 

And this trial won't be fair at all. Their lawyers won't be able to look at the evidence because China says it's a case that involves national security. So it's very difficult to mount any kind of defence when you don't have access to the evidence.

And the contacts between the two Michaels and their lawyers will be very limited. I recall when Kevin Garrett went through a similar process; I think he saw his lawyer maybe three times during his ordeal. So we know that we have to brace ourselves that they will stay in China as long as Ms. Meng is in Vancouver.

What do you make of the timing right now, so close to the time that Meng Whanzou was in court?

I think that they delayed this decision. They wanted to see what would be the decision of Justice [Healther] Holmes. And this was rendered some time ago. So now they have come to their conclusion that the extradition process will take quite some time, and they wanted to add further pressure on the Canadian government, so they decided to proceed with this formal trial.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou faces extradition from Canada to the U.S. where she is wanted on allegations of fraud. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

What do you make of how the Canadian government, how the Trudeau government, has handled this? We just heard from the prime minister saying how disappointed he is. The minister of foreign affairs described this as "an arbitrary detention" in a very brief statement. How do you think they've handled this?

I would say the only part of this strategy that has worked has been asking allies to come to our help and to [apply diplomatic pressure to] the Chinese government to request that the two Michaels be freed.

But for the rest, I think it's clearly China that comes out as the winner because they have succeeded in getting the federal government to exercise self-censorship on issues like what's happening in Xinjiang, or what China is doing in Hong Kong or in the South China Sea, and the way that they mishandled the pandemic in the early stages.

And what have we got in return? Well, the detention conditions of our two Canadians have not improved. We are still waiting also [for] two years [to learn] what will happen to the appeal lodged by the two Canadians on death row on drug charges, Mr. Fan Wei and Robert Schellenberg. And we have lost $4.5 billion in exports last year. For the first three months of this year, it's down 16 per cent.

So clearly, I think we have to reassess the strategy. And I've always argued for a more forceful approach, or one where China would understand that we will not take this lying down.

For instance, you know, we could announce that we are redeploying trade resources from China to other countries in Asia to take better advantage of free-trade agreements. Also, we should announce that we will make more inspections of Chinese goods coming into Canada to make sure that they respect our safety and health standards.

Plus, we should react very quickly any time we find interference by Chinese officials with Canadian universities, for instance, to prevent them from hosting events that will debate the situation in Xinjiang or what's happening in Hong Kong. Or when there is interference in the Canadian-Chinese community, and we know that this is happening. And similarly, any time we find someone spying, we should lay charges and prosecute these people.

What kinds of conditions do you think the two Micheals are going to find themselves in in the coming years?

We know that Michael Spavor is detained with 19 other people in the jail near the border with Dandong near North Korea. Michael Kovrig is with one other person, you know, and the lights are kept on 24 hours a day. They can go outside for a limited time, about 20 minutes every day.

The problem is that we have had no consular access to them since Jan. 13 and 14, respectively. And with the new occurrences of COVID cases in Beijing, the government, the Chinese government, will resist the contacts. 

And so all this to say is that, you know, their situation will be pretty dire for quite some time. And it's very sad what's happening to them. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now