Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a business executive, boarded a Canada-bound plane on Friday, hours after the U.S. Justice Department cut a deal with Meng, 49, allowing her to return to China in exchange for admitting to some wrongdoing in the criminal case. She arrived in Shenzhen on Saturday night to much fanfare.
The blistering pace of events — in courthouses in Brooklyn and Vancouver and prisons in Beijing and Dandong — shocked observers. Chinese officials had sometimes rejected the charge that the cases of the “two Michaels” and Meng were linked, and analysts expected China to wait before releasing them to keep up appearances.
While the developments settled a seemingly intractable clash that plunged Beijing’s ties with Ottawa and Washington into a deep freeze, it also served as a warning, and renewed questions about Canada’s relationship with China for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has faced criticism for his handling of the dispute.
“When you look at this, it’s Beijing admitting that this was hostage diplomacy,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. “They make no qualms about it. … I think the message to the world is, ‘Be careful, because we can go after your citizens if you cross us.’”
The Global Times, a state-run tabloid in China, quoted an expert in an article on Saturday who said China’s release of the Canadians “unlocks the bottleneck in China-Canada ties.” But Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said an immediate thaw in bilateral relations was unlikely and that sour feelings would remain.
“Going forward, I don’t think Canada-China relations will be the same as they were 1,000 days ago,” she said. “It’s fundamentally at a different point. … I think China has underestimated the cost of playing this game of hostage diplomacy. Its reputation has been tarnished tremendously.”
A Pew Research Center poll this year found that more than 70 percent of Canadians have an “unfavorable” view of China — a historic high — up from 45 percent in 2018.
Trudeau, who was reelected this week with a minority government after a snap election, first entered office in 2015 hoping to deepen economic ties with China, his country’s second-largest trading partner. But after the detention of the Canadians, he has faced pressure to take a harder line against Beijing.
He called the detentions of the two Michaels “arbitrary” and rejected calls from some prominent Canadians, including former foreign ministers, to release Meng with the hope it would prompt China to release the Canadians, saying that doing so would endanger Canadians around the world. Trudeau leaned on allies, including the United States, to pressure China to release the men, rallying several dozen countries to sign a declaration this year against “arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations” that did not explicitly mention China.
Opposition lawmakers have attacked him for an effort to jointly develop a coronavirus vaccine with CanSino, a Tianjin-based biotechnology firm, which fell apart after Chinese customs barred the vials from shipping to Canada for trials. Analysts said the development was likely further retribution for Meng’s arrest.
Trudeau and his cabinet abstained from a vote on a nonbinding motion in Parliament in February to declare that China is committing a genocide against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Ottawa has for several years been conducting a security review into whether to ban Huawei from its 5G networks as some of its allies have done over national security concerns.
Critics charged that these moves signaled an approach for dealing with China that was weak and naive.
“You don’t simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific,” Trudeau told Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole during a federal leaders election debate this month, when pressed on his handling of the country’s relationship with China.
Analysts said it was likely that Trudeau was trying to put off a decision on Huawei while the two Michaels were imprisoned, fearful of provoking further retaliation from Beijing. But their release makes avoiding these fraught questions more untenable now.
“We really need to have a coherent China policy,” Ong said. “Right now, I think the Liberal Party’s policies have been very ad hoc, almost on an issue-to-issue basis. On many important issues, it has been very reticent or reluctant to take a firm position. Much of that was, I think, because the two Michaels’ outcomes were pending.”
David Cohen, the Biden administration’s nominee for ambassador to Canada, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that the United States is also awaiting Canada’s framework for dealing with China.
Asked what the release of the two Michaels would mean for Canada’s relationship with China, Trudeau said on Friday that there would be time for “reflections and analysis” in the coming weeks.
Saint-Jacques was Canada’s ambassador to China when Trudeau visited the country in August 2016. He said Trudeau has “come a long way” since then.
“It was clear that he was not up to date about developments in China, about what I called ‘the dark side,’ despite all my attempts to tell Ottawa, ‘This is a bunch of thugs. They are taking China in a dangerous direction, and we will pay a price,’” he said. “When the two Michaels were arrested, it really came home for him.”
The two men were tried separately in March in secret proceedings. China has yet to provide evidence to support the charges leveled against them. A Chinese court found Spavor guilty in August and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. A verdict for Kovrig had not been announced.
Meng, who was out on $8 million bail at a mansion in Vancouver, pleaded not guilty to bank and wire fraud charges Friday. She agreed to a statement of facts that said she misled a bank about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary that did business in Iran, effectively tricking it into clearing transactions that violated U.S. sanctions on the country.
U.S. prosecutors said they would defer prosecution of the charges and drop them by Dec. 1, 2022, if Meng complied with the agreement’s terms. Talks between Meng and the DOJ to resolve the charges began last year, then fizzled out, before beginning again recently. It’s unclear what led to the recent breakthrough. A British Columbia judge was set to outline a timetable for her decision on Meng’s extradition in the fall.
Saint-Jacques, who recruited Kovrig to come to the embassy in Beijing, said he had not yet spoken to him since his release, but was “extremely happy” that he was home.
Kovrig and Spavor’s plane arrived at Calgary International Airport early Saturday morning, where they were greeted by Trudeau on the tarmac. Spavor waved to reporters as he left the airport. Kovrig continued to Toronto, where he was greeted by his wife and sister.
“It’s fantastic to be back home in Canada,” he told reporters, with his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, by his side, “And I’m immensely grateful to everyone who worked so hard to bring both of us back home.”