The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China is holding two Canadians as hostages. It’s not even denying it.

Michael Kovrig, an employee with the International Crisis Group and former Canadian diplomat, has been detained in China along Michael Spavor, on charges of endangering state security. (International Crisis Group/Handout via Reuters)
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Donald Clarke is a professor of law specializing in modern China at the George Washington University Law School in Washington.

Last week, China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on criminal charges of endangering state security. But these charges are a pretext. China is taking innocent people as hostages to pressure Canada not to extradite Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei (and daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei). Meng was detained in Canada on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, where she faces charges of bank fraud. (She is now free on bail pending the outcome of extradition proceedings.)

To call this is a hostage-taking and not a regular criminal investigation is a serious charge. Here it is justified. The critical element of a hostage-taking is that the hostage-taker must tell you that it’s a hostage-taking and what his demands are, otherwise the whole point of taking hostages is defeated. In this case, official and quasi-official Chinese sources have been clear. The Chinese ambassador to Canada has not just admitted it; he has also proclaimed it in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, saying that those who object to the Kovrig detention should reflect on Canada’s actions. Obviously, if there were no connection, those who object should no more reflect on Canada’s actions than they should reflect on the actions of, say, Saudi Arabia.

When China responds to criticism of the Kovrig/Spavor detentions by raising the Meng case, that is an admission that it’s all about retaliation. Assertions of equivalency are lazy and false. Both the United States and Canada host thousands of Chinese students who are the children of China’s rich and powerful, but neither they nor their parents need to worry that they will be held hostage. Neither government has the legal power to do it even if it wanted, and that lack of legal power matters.

Not so for China. Meng enjoys a full panoply of rights, including legal representation, freedom on bail, and a hearing before an impartial and independent decision-maker. No such luck for Kovrig and Spavor. Unlike Meng, they are not enjoying takeout pizza.

People in the international NGO, business, academic and diplomatic communities who deal with China should pay attention. Kovrig’s employer, the International Crisis Group (ICG), is supported by a number of European governments and is not considered inimical by China. What Kovrig did there was exactly what huge numbers of other people in those communities do in China: He went around and talked to people. As the ICG’s recent statement said, Kovrig “has met dozens of Chinese officials to share our analysis and policy ideas and ensure the Chinese government’s views are accurately reflected in our work.” Now we know that these activities can be instantly made the basis for serious criminal charges against anyone whose government offends China.

It is also worth noting that Kovrig formerly worked as a Canadian diplomat and is in fact an employee (currently on unpaid leave) of Global Affairs Canada, the department of the Canadian government in charge of diplomatic and consular relations. Does anyone think that the State Security people holding him in captivity are conscientiously limiting their questioning strictly to his activities since he began working for ICG in 2017? Every government should be concerned about this. If governments let this slide, they are acquiescing in China’s being able to detain any ex diplomat to question him or her, under considerable duress, about anything.

The world was on notice that China viewed hostage-taking as a legitimate diplomatic tactic back in 2014, when a Canadian couple living in China was arrested in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada not to extradite another Chinese suspect, Su Bin, to the United States. (Su ultimately waived extradition and consented to trial in the United States.) China is currently holding as hostages — without even bothering to deny it — the U.S. citizen children of a wanted fugitive abroad.

The international community must be more vocal in standing up for the innocent to protect its own interests, and not assume that these things can happen only to luckless Canadians and Americans.

It is no response to say that Meng is innocent or that the charges are meritless. None of this presumes that Meng deserves extradition and punishment, legally or morally, or that China, any more than Canada or the United States, must simply stand by and accept what it views as the unjust detention of one of its citizens. There are many ways China could retaliate against Canada that are within the range of measures taken by states that demand respect as civilized world powers. It could impose trade sanctions. It could expel Canadian citizens from China or forbid Chinese students from studying in Canada (a big blow to the budget of Canadian universities).

But some methods of retaliation are off target and off limits. You cannot just go around arresting innocent people and holding them hostage. That is the mark of a thuggish state, not a permanent member of the Security Council. If detaining two Canadians is an acceptable response, how about 20 or 200? Would it be acceptable for Canada to change its law to allow for the detention of random, innocent Chinese citizens until its own citizens are released?

If you want respect, act respectably.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump shouldn’t be negotiating U.S. criminal prosecutions with China

David Moscrop: Trump’s recklessness trips up Canada in the Huawei case

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera: The Huawei case shows how China’s ambitions are on a collision course with the U.S.

Isaac Stone Fish: Huawei’s surprising ties to the Brookings Institution