The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why it matters that a Chinese prosecutor says two detained Canadians ‘without a doubt’ broke the law

Chinese prosecutors almost always win

A man stands outside a Vancouver, B.C., court during a December bail hearing for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, holding a sign calling for China to release human rights activist Wang Bingzhang and Canadian ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Though swaggering U.S. prosecutors sometimes boast to reporters about the strength of their case, their Chinese counterparts typically don’t show their hands. So, the fact that China’s top prosecutor expressed confidence Thursday about the case against two Canadians in detention is unusual — and potentially revealing.

Michael Kovrig, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, and businessman Michael Spavor were detained last month on charges of “endangering national security.” Their detentions came soon after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese technology executive, Meng Wanzhou, on U.S. charges related to alleged sanctions violations, setting off a political standoff.

In the weeks since Kovrig and Spavor were taken into custody, Chinese officials had said little about the specifics of their cases. On Thursday, China’s prosecutor general, Zhang Jun, offered a brief comment, telling reporters in Beijing that the men “without a doubt” violated Chinese law and are now being investigated “according to procedure,” Reuters reported.

It is hard to know for sure what Zhang was hoping to communicate. But his comments, as well as previous high-profile cases, offer some clues as to what comes next.

Chinese officials are generally tight-lipped on politically sensitive issues, so the fact that an official spoke out about Kovrig and Spavor is noteworthy. It is also significant that it came from a top prosecutor, said Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra University’s law school who studies China’s legal system.

Ku said a comment from Zhang hints that Beijing plans to channel the case through China’s legal system rather than handling it with extralegal methods often used in high-profile, political cases. “The worst situation is when you are outside the legal process,” he said. "It’s not great to be in it, but it’s worse to be outside it.”

Since Meng was arrested in Vancouver, B.C., the Canadian government has repeatedly stressed that her case is a legal matter rather than a political one. Zhang’s comment gives the Chinese side the chance to draw a rhetorical parallel, sending a pointed message to the Canadian government: We, too, have laws.

It is not a clear parallel. Past cases suggest that Kovrig and Spavor can expect treatment that is markedly different from what happens in Canadian courts. In recent cases, foreign nationals held on security charges have been held incommunicado for extended periods, tortured, coerced into public confessions and, eventually, released.

In 2016, Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activists, disappeared en route to Beijing’s airport. While he was missing, Chinese authorities confirmed he was being held on “suspicion of endangering state security.” He was next seen on Chinese television “confessing” for the cameras.

“I violated Chinese law through my activities here. I’ve caused harm to the Chinese government. I’ve hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Dahlin said, using stock phrases familiar to readers of China’s Communist Party-controlled press.

In interviews since his release, Dahlin described being subjected to brutal interrogations and sleep deprivation. He could also hear cellmates being beaten, he told StarMetro Vancouver in a recent interview.

In 2014, a Canadian couple who had been living in China for decades were detained and accused of spying. The husband and wife, both Christian missionaries, were each held in solitary confinement for six months.

The woman, Julia Garratt, was eventually released under house arrest, but her husband was sent to prison. China held them for two years before they were released.

We know little about what is happening to Kovrig and Spavor. In December, a person familiar with Kovrig’s case told The Washington Post that Kovrig was being kept in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day, denied access to a lawyer and granted only one consulate visit a month.

“The conditions of Kovrig’s detention contrast starkly with those of Meng, who was released Dec. 11 on $7.4 million bail after a multiday court hearing, in which she was represented by high-powered lawyers and observed by throngs of journalists,” The Post’s Anna Fifield wrote from Beijing. “She is now staying at one of her luxury homes in Vancouver while awaiting the outcome of her extradition proceedings, which could take many months.”

Canada and the United States have called for Kovrig and Spavor to be released. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned U.S. citizens in China to exercise increased caution because of the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws."