To get Meng Wanzhou back, China is using a tough tactic: arresting foreigners
At the breakneck height of a 1,030-day stalemate, China welcomed a company executive back home whose arrest in Canada and possible extradition to the United States made it a hotspot of superpower friction. To get them back, Beijing wielded an impressive political instrument: to use detained foreign nationals as bargaining chips in disputes with other countries.
The executive, Meng Wanzhou, landed in China on Saturday evening local time to a public that widely sees her as the victim of arrogant American attacks. At the same time, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians arrested by Chinese officials just days after Ms. Meng was arrested, were released and arrived in Canada.
The exchange resolves one of the simmering disputes that has brought Washington-Beijing tensions to its worst in decades. But it is unlikely to do much to resolve deeper issues like human rights, a full crackdown in Hong Kong, cyber espionage, China’s threats of violence against Taiwan, and fears in Beijing that the United States will never accept China’s rise.
The speed of the apparent deal is also a warning to leaders in other countries that the Chinese government can boldly deal with foreigners, said Donald C. Clarke, a law professor specializing in China at George Washington University’s Law School.
“They don’t even pretend this is anything but a hostage-taking,” he said of the two Canadians on trial for espionage. Mr Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison last month and Mr Kovrig was awaiting a verdict on his case after the March trial.
“In a way, China has strengthened its negotiating position in future negotiations like this one,” said Professor Clarke. “They say if you give them what they want, they will deliver as agreed.”
Chinese media reports reported that she was released and escaped home, skipped her admission of wrongdoing or said it was not a formal admission of guilt. On the Chinese Internet, Ms. Meng has been hailed as a patriotic symbol of China’s opposition to Western bullying. Your plane was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd on the tarmac at the airport in Shenzhen, China, waving Chinese flags.
“Without a powerful motherland I would not have my freedom today” Ms. Meng said in a statement about her flight.
Chinese news media barely mentioned the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, which gave the impression that Beijing did not reveal anything about their return.
To say the apparent swap signals a thaw in relationships would be premature at best, experts said.
President Biden has identified China as one of the most important challenges to American supremacy. The publications came when he hosted the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the Quad, a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia united by concerns about China’s power and intentions in Asia. This month, Mr Biden revealed a new security deal with Australia and the UK and plans to ship nuclear submarines to Australia.
While Canadian officials and American prosecutors have insisted on treating Ms. Meng’s case as a purely legal matter, politics has lurked in the background since her arrest at a Vancouver airport on December 1, 2018.
Nine days later, security officers took Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, from a street in Beijing. Mr. Spavor was arrested the same day in Dandong, a Chinese city across from North Korea, a country where he did business for a long time. While Ms. Meng was allowed to live in her villa in Vancouver, the two Canadians were jailed under much harsher conditions.
Chinese officials rejected the idea that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were actually hostages. But Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, scoffed at her denials, and Chinese officials and media commentators occasionally hinted that there might be a compromise in exchange for Ms. Meng’s release.
The United States alleged Ms. Meng lied to a bank in 2013 about whether Huawei – the telecommunications company her father Ren Zhengfei founded and where she was CFO – retained control of a company that did business in Iran in violation of her American sanctions. Ms. Meng’s lawyers argued that she was honest.
Despite their appearances on both sides, the United States and Ms. Meng had some incentive to find common ground, in part because neither was entirely sure they would win the battle for extradition, according to two other people who came across the conversations knew.
Her lawyers argued that the trial against her involved an abuse of procedure, particularly President Donald J. Trump’s remark that he could intervene to reach a trade deal with Beijing.
“Trump has made matters worse on several occasions by suggesting that Huawei could simply be another US item in the trade negotiations,” wrote John Bolton, who had served as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, in his memoir.
While the Canadian courts heard arguments, there was evidence that Washington and Beijing were trying to find common ground. The negotiations between Ms. Meng’s team and the Justice Department began more than a year ago, said a person familiar with the talks.
At the State Department, the two Canadians appeared to be a priority among human rights cases. When Wendy R. Sherman, the assistant secretary of state, took part in talks in China in July, she “brought up the cases of American and Canadian citizens,” the ministry said at the time.
Last week, President Biden had a phone conversation with China’s President Xi Jinping. Neither side released details, but Mr. Xi’s public comments indicated that he wanted to ease tension. The two sides, so Xi in the official summary of China, should “get the Sino-American relations back on the right path of stable development as soon as possible.”
However, the public dissolution may have been slowed down by the recent elections in Canada. The prime minister, Mr Trudeau, took office back in last week’s elections despite failing to win a dominant majority in parliament.
The Chinese government’s hard-nosed tactics may have been successful in escaping Ms. Meng, but they appear to have created permanent odor in Canada, showing the political cost of arresting foreign nationals. More than 70 percent of Canadian respondents in this year’s Pew Research Center poll had a negative opinion about China. Resistance to buying Huawei devices there has grown.
But under Mr. Xi, Chinese officials have become more courageous to reject Western criticism. They said Ms. Meng’s arrest was highly political and was willing to do whatever it takes to ensure she did not go to trial in the United States.
“This was the political persecution of a Chinese citizen with the aim of smashing a Chinese high-tech company,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement about Ms. Meng on Saturday. “The US and Canadian actions were classic arbitrary detentions.”
John Kamm, an American businessman who has negotiated with Chinese officials for decades, said Beijing could also release American citizens held in China as part of diplomatic give and take. Some are in custody, others under travel bans preventing them from leaving China.
“I think now we can hope that other shoes will fall – movement in other cases,” said Mr Kamm over the phone.
Ms. Meng was welcomed as a heroine on her return, but before she can move she must first undergo a three-week quarantine under China’s strict rules for Covid-19. During her stay in Canada, she stayed in her seven-bedroom home in Vancouver and was able to move around her left corner with a tracker device.
Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor landed at Calgary International Airport on Saturday morning, where Mr Trudeau and his Foreign Secretary Marc Garneau greeted them. The two Michaels will get a look of attention and then the difficulty of adapting to little human contact after years of imprisonment.
“The restriction of movement is still a prison sentence, but the difference between what Meng went through and what they went through is night and day,” said Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, criminal justice system in China educated. “The worst of your ordeal is over, but your wounds will continue.”
Ian Austen contributed the coverage from Ottawa and Dan Bilefsky from Montreal. Clare Fu contributed to the research.