The Current

'We cannot just accept the stalemate,' says wife of former diplomat detained in China

The wife of a Canadian former diplomat who is being detained in China on suspicions of espionage says that as dark as this time feels, she remains focused on opportunities to secure her husband’s release.

China set to put Michael Kovrig on trial Monday, after fellow detainee’s hearing ended with no ruling Friday

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, have remained in Chinese custody for more than 2 years. Both face charges of espionage. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

The wife of a Canadian former diplomat who is being detained in China on suspicions of espionage says that as dark as this time feels, she remains focused on opportunities to secure her husband's release.

"Both Michael Spavor and our Michael [Kovrig] have endured a lot of the same things for the last more than two years. So I suspect something very similar will play out on Monday," said Vina Nadjibulla, reacting to news Friday that a court hearing for Spavor in China had ended with no ruling. Her husband is set to go to trial on Monday.

"But again, what I try to focus on is not so much the legal elements that are now unfolding in China, but rather what can we do here to try to bring to an end the situation."

In a statement Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau announced that court hearings for the two Canadian men were expected to unfold over the coming week. He called their detainment "arbitrary," adding that the lack of transparency around the court proceedings is "deeply" troubling.

Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China on Dec. 10, 2018 — nine days after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver. She was detained on a U.S. extradition request over allegations she lied to a Hong Kong banker in August 2013 about Huawei's control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. 

The arrests of Spavor and Kovrig have been seen as retaliation by China for Meng's detainment. Earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was "obvious" that China had concocted the charges against the two Canadians.

Watch | Michael Kovrig's wife reacts to news of upcoming trial

'He works to transform anger into determination and grievance into resolve': Michael Kovrig's wife reacts to news of his upcoming trial

Power and Politics

3 months ago
Vina Nadjibulla tells Power & Politics, the past few years have been a difficult journey but she's focused on bringing Michael Kovrig home, despite his upcoming trial in China. 10:06

Meanwhile, as their cases head to court, U.S. and Chinese officials met in Alaska on Thursday, kicking off their first official high-level meeting since Joe Biden became U.S. president.

Nadjibulla told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton that a trilateral solution between the U.S., Canada and China must be found.

However, it's not a matter of Canada launching a tougher response, but being smarter and more strategic, she said.

"This is not a black-and-white situation, unfortunately. There are no easy answers here," said Nadjibulla. "But what I hope guides us in deciding what needs to be done is the well-being and the lives of these two innocent men."

"We cannot just accept the stalemate and continue to talk about some future possibility for release," she added.

Trials 'a process of price discovery': expert

Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, agrees. 

She said Canada needs to ensure the release of the two Michaels is at the top of the agenda during the Alaska summit between Chinese and American officials.

"These are human lives that we are talking about, not just abstract geopolitics," she told Barton.

However, the "very opaque" nature of the trials so far suggests that China sees the situation as "a political game," said Ong. During Spavor's trial on Friday, officials from several countries requested access to the hearing but were denied. 

Lynette Ong is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. She says China sees the trials of Spavor and Kovrig as 'a political game.' (Riley Stewart)

"So far, we have not seen any evidence — firm evidence — being presented that [Spavor and Kovrig] are actually guilty of any charges at all," Ong said. "Everyone else is kept in the dark."

Evan Medeiros, who teaches U.S.-China relations at Georgetown University in Washington, called the trials "a process of price discovery" in which China is determining what concessions it can extract from the United States.

Medeiros was a top advisor on the Asia-Pacific region to former U.S. president Barack Obama, and spent six years working on policies related to China.

He said the Chinese are looking for a reset of their relationship with the United States now that the Trump years have ended, and they're gathering up sources of leverage — including Spavor and Kovrig — to facilitate it.

Evan Medeiros teaches U.S.-China relations at Georgetown University in Washington, and was a top advisor to former U.S. president Barack Obama on the Asia-Pacific region. (Submitted by Evan Medeiros)

"The Chinese are trying to figure out what the Americans are willing to pay, and the Americans are trying to hold fast to core principles," he told Barton. 

"And I think that competition was on display to the world [this week], where the Chinese showed that they have this newly combative, highly unapologetic style in which they are going to push back at every opportunity."

"Unfortunately ... the two Michaels are caught up in this."

Ong said the case doesn't just have implications for Canada and the U.S., but carries symbolic weight for the rest of the Western world, as well.

"This is a … test case of whether the Western alliance can actually come together effectively, because China is very good at the strategy of picking [on] countries individually," Ong said. 

"If we let these two Michaels' trials fall through, you know, and do not do anything about it, I think it will just set a very bad precedent to come."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Linsday Rempel, Ashley Fraser, Idella Sturino and Ryan Chatterjee.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

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

Sign up now