The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s release of ‘Two Michaels’ vexes country’s online nationalists

Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of an airplane in Shenzhen on Sept. 25. (Jin Liwang/AP)

When Meng Wanzhou landed in Shenzhen on Saturday night, a crowd at the airport welcomed the Huawei executive home with Chinese flags and a rendition of “Ode to the Motherland.” Official state broadcaster CCTV crowed that her release was another example of the strength of the Chinese state in defending its people. The People’s Daily called the moment a triumph.

Yet that victory was undercut domestically by confusion and questions from nationalist commentators over China’s release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were sent home hours after the U.S. Justice Department reached a deal with Meng. Kovrig, a former diplomat turned analyst, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were detained in China in December 2018 in separate cases widely seen as retaliation against Canada for Meng’s arrest days earlier in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.

“The discussion online is that Meng was innocent, but the facts of Kovrig and Spavor’s crimes are irrefutable. The U.S. side releasing Meng was justified, but was China forced into this compromise?” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

Canada’s ‘two Michaels’ back home after more than 1,000 days imprisoned in China

The release of the two Canadians underlines the awkward position Beijing now finds itself in, having claimed for years that authorities had “iron clad” evidence against the pair while drumming up nationalism at home to deflect against criticism that it had engaged in hostage diplomacy.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said both men had applied for and been granted bail for medical reasons. Before then, Beijing was silent on the release of the “Two Michaels,” as the men became known during their nearly three-year imprisonment on vague charges of espionage. Both were tried in closed-door trials in March. Spavor was found guilty, while a verdict for Kovrig had not been announced.

Other Internet users asked why there had been so little reporting in Chinese media about the Canadians’ release. Most state media have focused on Meng’s homecoming, skating over details of the Michaels’ return to Canada. The state-run Global Times, in mentioning their release, wrote in its English-language version that “the incident of Meng is entirely different from the cases of the two Canadians.”

China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ standoff with Canada is over. But how much damage was done?

Yet comments asking for more details on their release were quickly scrubbed from discussion forums. “There is no basis for China’s release of the Michaels. This is not justice in the least,” read one post that has since been deleted. “People keep saying Meng’s case is a great victory for China … but it’s been three years and we had to trade two Canadian spies,” another user wrote on Weibo.

Liu Xiaoyuan, a rights lawyer, wrote in a WeChat post viewed more than 100,000 times before it was taken down that China ought to explain the release of the Canadians. “Now that the two whose cases were ‘iron clad’ have been released, shouldn’t a legal explanation be given?” Liu wrote.

There has been little mention in China of Meng’s admission of wrongdoing as part of her deal with the Justice Department. Meng acknowledged helping to conceal Huawei’s direct dealings in Iran, which violated U.S. sanctions.

Accused of hostage diplomacy, China has repeatedly said that the case of the Michaels, detained a little over a week after Meng was arrested in Vancouver, was a matter of national security. Beijing instead insists that Meng was the victim of U.S. hostage diplomacy in a plot to constrain the country’s development.

On Monday, Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, seemed to defend the delay in securing Meng’s return. “Justice may be late, but it will never be absent,” she said.

Christian Shepherd, Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ standoff with Canada is over. But how much damage was done?

Canada’s ‘two Michaels’ back home after more than 1,000 days imprisoned in China as Huawei’s Meng cuts deal with U.S.

Meng Wanzhou can return to China, admits helping Huawei conceal dealings in Iran