China’s game of international chicken over the apprehension of a Chinese telecommunications executive in Canada got deadly serious this week. On Monday, a court in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian issued a new verdict in a case against Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, changing the Canadian’s original sentence of 15 years for alleged drug smuggling to a death sentence.
The flip-flop sentencing followed the arrest last month of two other Canadians in China — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — for activities that “endanger China’s security,” a phrase often used by Beijing when alleging espionage. Kovrig and Spavor were taken into custody following the Dec. 1 apprehension in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request related to allegations that she and Huawei Technologies, of which she is chief financial officer, dodged international sanctions to do business in Iran. Meng is currently living in a mansion in Vancouver while she fights the U.S. extradition request.
Any debate that Kovrig’s and Spavor’s arrests were not meant as retaliation for Meng’s case was laid to rest on Jan. 9 by none other than China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye. In an op-ed, Lu framed China’s arrest of the two Canadians as “self-defence.” He also accused Canada and its allies of “Western egotism and white supremacy” for demanding Kovrig’s and Spavor’s immediate release.
Schellenberg’s sentencing led Western legal scholars to conclude that it, too, is related to Meng’s incarceration. For one, soon after Meng was arrested, a Chinese court announced that Schellenberg’s original sentence of 15 years for his alleged involvement in a methamphetamine ring was too lenient. Mind you, it took the court in Dalian more than 32 months to decide on that original verdict. On Monday, however, the same court overturned the 15-year sentence after a day of court proceedings and only one hour of deliberation. As the Georgetown University legal scholar Donald Clarke noted, China’s state-sanctioned hostage-taking campaign has just metastasized into “death-threat diplomacy.”
These cases are not unique. Indeed, they are part of a recent pattern in which China’s government has taken steps with an almost willful obliviousness to international public opinion.
In October 2015, Chinese authorities apparently kidnapped a Chinese-born Swedish bookseller named Gui Minhai from his vacation home in Thailand. Gui had been selling books containing allegations about high-level corruption among Chinese Communist Party officials. A few months later Gui appeared on Chinese state television to offer what was likely a forced confession, claiming he had returned to China voluntarily. He was jailed for more than 18 months, and when he was released in the fall 2017, he was banned from leaving China, although he has not been charged with any additional crimes. In another case, Georgetown University student Victor Liu and his sister, Cynthia Liu, both U.S. citizens, have been blocked from leaving China for months because Chinese authorities suspect their father of having committed bank fraud. It’s pretty clear that Chinese authorities are holding the Liu children as human collateral in a case against their father.
Canada has also seen this movie before. Soon after Canadian authorities took custody of a Chinese-born aerospace executive named Su Bin on an espionage-related extradition request from the United States in June 2014, China arrested a Canadian couple — Kevin and Julia Garratt — who ran a coffee shop in the northeastern city of Dandong and accused them of spying, too. In March 2016, Su pleaded guilty to hacking into the computer systems of major U.S. defense contractors, stealing reams of information on the C-17 military transport plane, along with details about the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets. Only after Su pleaded guilty were the Garratts released.
The Su case provides a key to the fates of Kovrig, Spavor and Schellenberg. As the case against Meng wends its way through Canada’s courts, China will likely keep them in custody, like it did the Garratts, with a gun at Schellenberg’s head. Depending on how Meng fares, China will respond. This might be shocking to those in the West, but it’s becoming increasingly normal in a country where law enforcement’s main function is not to keep the peace but to keep the Communist Party in power.
It’s no coincidence that these actions have intensified under the rule of President Xi Jinping, who has used China’s security services to drum up corruption charges against potential competitors and purge them from the party’s ranks. Before Xi took power in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party conducted its foreign policy with a certain degree of circumspection. China’s diplomats understood the reputational risks of thuggish behavior overseas and worked quietly to rein in the worst tendencies of China’s security agencies. Now, however, those brakes are broken, and even ambassadors are conscripted to validate China’s truculent behavior across the globe.