To get Meng Wanzhou back, China uses harsh tactic: grab foreigners


In the culmination of a 1,030-day standoff, China welcomed into its home a business executive whose arrest in Canada and possible extradition to the United States made her a hotbed of friction between the superpowers. To recover it, Beijing has wielded a formidable political tool: to use foreign nationals detained as bargaining chips in disputes with other countries.

The leader, Meng Wanzhou, landed in China on Saturday evening local time in front of an audience that widely sees her as a victim of Americans’ arrogant excess. At the same time, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians detained by Chinese authorities just days after Ms. Meng’s arrest, were released and arrived in Canada.

The exchange resolves one of the festering disputes that have raised tensions between Washington and Beijing to their worst level in decades. But that probably won’t do much to address deeper issues, including human rights, a sweeping crackdown in Hong Kong, cyber espionage, threats from China to use force against Taiwan, and fears about it. Beijing that the United States never accepts the rise of China.

The speed of the apparent deal also serves as a warning to leaders of other countries that the Chinese government may be boldly transactional with foreign nationals, said Donald C. Clarke, a law professor specializing in China at the Law School of the United States. ‘George Washington University.

“They don’t even pretend to pretend it was anything but a simple hostage-taking,” he said of the two Canadians, who were tried on charges of espionage. Mr Spavor was sentenced last month to 11 years in prison, and Mr Kovrig was awaiting a verdict in his case after his trial in March.

“In a sense, China has strengthened its negotiating position in future negotiations like this,” Prof Clarke said. “They say, if you give them what they want, they’ll deliver it as agreed.”

Chinese media reported on his release and return flight, skipping his admission of wrongdoing or saying it did not amount to a formal guilty plea. On the Internet in China, Ms. Meng has been hailed as a patriotic symbol of China that has resisted Western intimidation. His plane was greeted on the tarmac at Shenzhen Airport in China by an enthusiastic crowd waving Chinese flags.

“Without a powerful homeland, I would not have my freedom today,” Ms. Meng said in a statement released after she fled.

Chinese media barely mentioned the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, leaving the impression that Beijing gave nothing for his return.

To say that the apparent exchange signals a thaw in relations would be premature at best, experts said.

President Biden has identified China as a major challenge to American preeminence. The releases came as it hosted the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the Quad, a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, united in their apprehension about power and China’s intentions in Asia. This month, Biden unveiled a new security deal with Australia and Britain, and plans to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

While Canadian officials and US prosecutors have insisted they are treating Ms Meng’s case as a purely legal matter, politics have remained 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, to a street in Beijing. Mr. Spavor was arrested the same day in Dandong, a Chinese city across from North Korea, a country where he has long done business. While Ms Meng was allowed to live in her Vancouver mansion, the two Canadians were held in much harsher conditions.

Chinese authorities have rejected the idea that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were in fact hostages. But Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have scoffed at their denials, and Chinese officials and media commentators have sometimes hinted that there could be a compromise in exchange for Ms Meng’s release.

The United States alleged that in 2013 Ms Meng lied to a bank about whether Huawei – the telecommunications company founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei, and where she was chief financial officer – had retained control of a company who was doing business in Iran in violation. US sanctions. Ms. Meng’s attorneys claimed that she told the truth.

Despite positions on both sides, the United States and Ms Meng were pressured to find common ground in part because neither of them was entirely sure they would win the battle to extradite her, two other people said. aware of the talks.

Her lawyers have argued that the case against her involved an abuse of process, including President Donald J. Trump’s comment that he could step in to strike a trade deal with Beijing.

“Trump has made matters worse on several occasions by suggesting that Huawei may just be another bargaining chip for the United States in trade negotiations,” wrote John Bolton, who had been Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. , in his memoirs.

As Canadian courts heard the arguments, there were indications that Washington and Beijing were trying to find common ground. Negotiations between Ms. Meng’s team and the Justice Ministry began over a year ago, a person familiar with the talks said.

At the State Department, the two Canadians appeared to be a priority among human rights cases. When Wendy R. Sherman, the Under Secretary of State, attended talks in China in July, she “raised the cases of US and Canadian citizens,” the department said at the time.

President Biden had a phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week. Neither side gave details, but Xi’s public comments suggested he wanted to ease tensions. The two sides, Xi said according to China’s official summary, should “put Sino-US relations back on the right path of stable development as soon as possible.”

Public resolution, however, may have been slowed by the recent elections in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau returned to office in last week’s election, although he failed to secure an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

The Chinese government’s harsh tactics may have succeeded in making Ms Meng gush, but they seem to have created a lasting heinousness in Canada, showing the political costs of seizing foreign nationals. More than 70 percent of Canadian respondents to a Pew Research Center poll this year had an unfavorable view of China. Resistance to purchasing Huawei equipment has grown there.

But under Xi, Chinese officials have become more daring in dismissing Western criticism. They said Ms. Meng’s arrest was blatantly political and seemed willing to do anything to ensure that she would not be tried in the United States.

“This was the political persecution of a Chinese citizen with the aim of crushing a Chinese high-tech company,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Saturday in a statement regarding Ms. Meng. “The actions of the United States and Canada were classic arbitrary detentions. “

John Kamm, an American businessman who has negotiated for decades with Chinese officials, said Beijing may also release American nationals detained in China as part of diplomatic concessions. Some are in detention, others are subject to exit bans that prevent them from leaving China.

“I think now we can hope that there will be other shoe scraps – movement on other cases,” Mr Kamm said by phone.

Ms Meng received a heroic welcome upon her return, but before she can move, she will first have to undergo three weeks of quarantine under China’s strict rules for Covid-19. While in Canada, she remained in her closed seven-room house in Vancouver and was able to move around with a tracking device on her left corner.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor touched down at Calgary International Airport on Saturday morning, where Mr. Trudeau and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marc Garneau, greeted them. The two Michaels will be faced with a dazzling gaze and then the difficulties of adjusting after years of detention with little human contact.

“Restricting your movement is always a deprivation of liberty, 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 who studies criminal justice in China. “The worst of their ordeal is over, but their injuries will continue. “

Ian austen contributed to Ottawa reporting and Dan Bilefsky contributed from Montreal. Claire Fu contributed to the research.

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