The case touches on a host of hot-button Canadian issues, including Quebec, indigenous affairs and corporate influence. On Friday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs helpfully injected another angle, judicial independence, potentially compounding Trudeau’s troubles.
The question of judicial independence is at the heart of the SNC-Lavalin case. Unfortunately for Trudeau, it was also at issue in another recent legal-political drama: the arrest, in Vancouver, of Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.
Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport Dec. 1 on U.S. charges, setting off a diplomatic dispute that’s seen China call for Meng’s release and — when that failed — the detention of two Canadian citizens in China.
Trudeau and his team have stressed that Meng’s arrest was a legal matter, not a political one. The prime minister said Canada must adhere to its extradition treaty with the United States and could not and would not interfere on Meng.
When the former Canadian ambassador to China hinted that a deal could be cut, he was forced to resign. “We are a country of rule of law,” Trudeau said, again and again.
On Friday, at a news briefing in Beijing, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took issue with that claim, telling reporters that Canada has questions to answer when it comes to the rule of law.
A reporter for a Communist Party-controlled news outlet asked the spokesman, Lu Kang, whether it was contradictory for Trudeau to say he couldn’t interfere in Meng’s case while at the same time being accused of intervening on SNC-Lavalin.
Lu, who does not typically praise reporters or weigh in on Canadian politics, responded that he “really liked” the question, according to Reuters. “Of course I think that this is a question that should be asked of the Canadian government,” he said.
"In fact, on this case you have mentioned, people in Canada are paying it a great deal of attention,” Lu continued. “Not only Chinese and Canadian citizens, but the whole world are extremely interested to hear how the Canadian government answers this question.”
The reporter’s leading question drew a false parallel between what’s happening in the Meng case, which is in the courts, and a still-unfolding political scandal that’s seen no charges brought — a pretty standard-issue move.
Indeed, since Meng’s arrest, Chinese diplomats and the Communist Party-controlled press have tried to link Meng’s arrest to, among other things, Canadian white supremacy.
But it’s still significant to see a Chinese official comment on the political fortunes of a foreign leader. His tone sends a clear message to Ottawa: We know you are weak.
The question now is whether Trudeau’s Canadian critics pick up Lu’s line of attack. To do so would help China make a point. It would also make things even worse for Trudeau.