I know. No big deal. Just one more casually amoral, willfully obtuse, senselessly destructive assault on the rule of law.
But President Trump’s preening undermining of legal process last week in the case of an indicted Chinese executive in Canada hit me especially hard. That may be because of my connection to a Chinese kidnapping case from long ago that serves as the template for the cross-border lawlessness blossoming as the United States retreats from the defense of international norms.
The victim of that long-ago kidnapping, Wang Bingzhang, is still in prison, after 15 years. If he is not China’s longest-serving political prisoner, he is close.
Wang was born in China, came to North America to study, campaigned for democracy and couldn’t go home. In June 2002 he traveled to Vietnam for what he thought would be a meeting with labor activists from China.
Chinese security agents abducted him and smuggled him across the border. For six months, he was simply gone.
When China finally admitted its complicity, the news was shocking. China at least felt compelled to offer a veneer of legality: In February 2003, after a closed, one-day “trial,” Wang was sentenced to life in prison, ostensibly for espionage and terrorism.
Today, such an abduction would come as less of a shock.
In 2015, five employees of a Hong Kong business that published books offensive to Chinese Communist Party leaders were seized. One of them, a Swedish citizen named Gui Minhai, was taken from his home in Thailand; he, too, remains locked away in China.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin raised the stakes from cross-border kidnapping to cross-border murder. A former KGB officer who had been granted political asylum in Britain was poisoned with radioactive polonium on Nov. 1, 2006, and died three weeks later. This year Putin engineered the poisoning of another former agent, Sergei Skripal, who had been living peaceably in the English cathedral city of Salisbury, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia.
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps noting how China and Russia got away with their crimes, in the spring of 2017 began “a secret program for kidnapping dissidents and holding them at secret sites,” as my colleague David Ignatius recently reported.
The program culminated in the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi exile and Post contributing columnist, in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Trump reacted with a shrug. “To the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” he said.
Despite the murder, Trump continues to embrace the crown prince, as he embraced Putin in Helsinki less than five months after the Salisbury poisoning.
As he told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly last year, when O’Reilly called Putin a killer: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Now Trump is dragging Canada down into his sordid sense of reality.
At the request of U.S. law enforcement, Canada on Dec. 1 detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications company Huawei Technologies and daughter of the company’s founder. This was in accord with international law, based on serious allegations that Meng would eventually have the right to defend herself against. She has been granted bail in Vancouver, B.C.
China, furious, detained two Canadians, lawlessly, and is holding them.
The contrast was stark — until Trump essentially reduced Meng’s arrest to the level of another hostage-taking. “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made. . . . I would certainly intervene,” he said, adding, “It’s also possible it will be a part of negotiations.”
Whether Meng is guilty of a felony is apparently not relevant. With his cynical, purely transactional view, Trump sandbagged Canada and its claim that the arrest was a matter of law enforcement alone; encouraged other nations to seize foreigners as negotiating tools; and undercut any insistence that innocent, unjustly held prisoners be freed without trade-off or condition.
I have never met Wang Bingzhang, now 70 and ailing in his remote Chinese prison. But, after writing a novel for young readers inspired partly by his story, I have had the good fortune to become friends with his family. I have met the grandchildren he has never seen. And I had hoped that the government of Justin Trudeau, mindful that most of Wang’s family lives in Montreal, might persuade China to release Wang on humanitarian grounds.
I still have that hope. But now Canada has more immediate worries in its relationship with China, having upheld the rule of law on behalf of a neighbor who scoffs at it.
Last week, the U.S. Senate, voting unanimously to condemn the Saudi crown prince for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, sent one hopeful signal: Not everyone in the U.S. government has abandoned our founding principles.
A bit of good news, but hardly enough to undo the damage being perpetrated from the White House.