Although China has never spelled out the reasons for Michael’s imprisonment, it is clear that he is merely a pawn in a larger geopolitical game. A Canadian citizen and former diplomat, he was detained — along with another Canadian, Michael Spavor — nine days after Ottawa, acting upon a U.S. request under an extradition treaty, arrested Meng Wangzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant. She is unable to leave the country until her case is resolved, but that case, unlike Michael’s, is now before the courts. She is free on bail while it proceeds, and she has full access to legal representation.
Washington accuses Huawei of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran and otherwise threatening U.S. national security. It claims Meng fraudulently lied to bank executives to help Huawei. Beijing retorts that the U.S. extradition request is politically motivated and Washington is harassing a business competitor for commercial reasons. This incident is but one in an escalating trade dispute between China and the United States. Tensions have boiled to the top. Michael is their casualty.
Michael’s unjust detention comes at a particularly sensitive time in terms of China’s role in the world. As its relative power rises and that of the United States diminishes, Beijing is playing an increasingly important and visible role on the world stage. That, in turn, is creating anxieties, both in Asia and the West. In response, many have been advocating a far more aggressive approach toward China.
We believe that this is the wrong approach. Each one of us, in our capacity as present or former presidents of Crisis Group, have argued for years that engaging with China is a far better path than ostracizing it. We have made the case that Beijing has a critical role to play not only in its own Asian neighborhood but elsewhere as well, including in preventing, mitigating and resolving deadly conflict — across the globe from Central Asia to the Korean Peninsula, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, from Sudan to Zimbabwe.
Indeed, in his work for Crisis Group, that is precisely what Michael was researching and advocating. He spoke extensively to Chinese officials, seeking to better understand their position on these various crises, with his reports often suggesting ways for China to contribute to peace and stability worldwide.
But when China violates the rights of a foreigner on its soil, and when it does so with such a thinly disguised ulterior motive, it inevitably has a chilling effect on all those who would like to engage Beijing, whether in diplomacy, business or other mutually beneficial interaction. It can only dissuade many such people from reaching out to China, out of worry that they, too, will wind up behind bars. It undermines the climate of trust that a policy of active engagement seeks to develop.
China is, alas, not the first country to detain individuals for broader geopolitical reasons. And Michael is not the only person to become an innocent victim of interstate disputes. That does not make his detention any more excusable, or any less harmful to China’s global reputation.
Michael Kovrig’s detention is unjust and inhumane. It should not have lasted one hour, let alone one year. China should set him free.