The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How China is using a death sentence to manipulate Canada

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was sentenced to death on drug trafficking charges on Jan. 14 after his previous 15-year prison sentence was deemed too lenient. (Intermediate Peoples' Court of Dalian/AFP/Getty Images) (Handout/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethan Lou, a former Reuters journalist, is a writer based in Calgary.

China will kill to send a message.

That seems to be the takeaway from the death sentence that country gave a Canadian man on Monday, amid rising bilateral tension after the December arrest of a high-profile Chinese businesswoman in Vancouver.

The sentence may appear too much, a beyond-the-pale move that disregards all notions of the civilized diplomacy and so-called soft-power rise that China has touted.

But make no mistake, there is a method to China’s madness. Like many of its moves, the death sentence was coldly calculated. It was born not out of ignorance for Canada’s rule of law, but with an aim to exploit it.

China has already detained two Canadians after the December arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei (and daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei). Though China has denied the cases were linked, observers and former diplomats have called the detentions retaliation.

Those two detentions served a purpose, even though China knows full well that Canadian politicians cannot be pressured to intervene in an independent judiciary to free Meng.

China used the detentions to show strength. They take one of ours, we’ll take two of theirs. China’s population has spent its life under a politicized judiciary and could see any other reaction as weakness. Politicizing the matter also grants a distraction from the people’s increasing dissatisfaction with the government.

But Monday’s death sentence to the convicted drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg was something else. China is no longer trying to show strength. It is painting itself as the victim and Canada the bully.

Again, China has denied Schellenberg’s case was linked with Meng’s. The man had, after all, been arrested in 2014. Death for the staggering 222 kilograms of methamphetamine he was convicted of smuggling is also not unheard of in China. Schellenberg even has a Canadian drug conviction.

But Schellenberg was originally given a 15-year sentence. It was increased to death in a retrial that could normally take years to schedule but happened in two weeks. State media played up coverage. The court even invited foreign press. As a former Canadian ambassador to China said in December, “In China, there’s no coincidence.”

Schellenberg has become an unfortunate pawn in a big game. Canada, which has no death penalty, is compelled by law to intervene when its citizens are sentenced to that overseas. A prime minister, an ambassador and a governor general — Canada’s nominal head of state — have directly advocated for convicts in past cases.

That is precisely what China wants. In handing death to Schellenberg, China is pushing for a reaction. It wants Canada to politically intervene in a judicial case.

That is what China has been doing for Meng after her arrest, summoning Canada’s ambassador and publicly threatening “grave consequences” if the executive was not released.

That is also what Canada has said it cannot do for Meng, who was arrested at the request of the United States for her alleged role in violating Iran sanctions, which she denies.

“We are a country of the rule of law,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after China’s public comments. “We live up to our international obligations, and we trust our courts to do the right thing.”

Schellenberg’s death penalty forces Canada to politically intervene. In doing so, China is trying to draw some false equivalency between that case and Meng’s. “See? Canada is doing what we are doing as well.”

China is trying to paint Canada as a hypocrite — appearing to do what it has said it would not, and for the extremely unsympathetic Schellenberg. It is trying to paint the Western standards of political-judicial separation as a farce.

That is in line with the Chinese ambassador to Canada’s recent opinion piece that accused the North American country of “white supremacy” and applying a “double standard.”

That is also in line with an updated travel advisory that China issued Tuesday, citing Meng’s “arbitrary detention” and warning citizens to “fully evaluate risks.” The advisory used similar language to one issued by Canada for China and came just hours after.

Schellenberg’s sentence is part of a sophisticated public relations attack. It chips away at the notion that Meng’s arrest is purely a judicial matter, which has already been eroded when President Trump said in December he might intervene in the case.

Those efforts may have limited impact in the West, but back home, for the intended audience, it does exactly what China wants.

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.

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