China’s Detention of Canadians Could Backfire | Wilson Center

China’s Detention of Canadians Could Backfire

We don’t know where–or in what conditions–Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are being held. 

They were detained a week ago today, on Monday December 10, in different cities, in different regions of China, but on the same, serious allegations of “endangering national security.” 

Both are Canadian citizens.  Michael Kovrig is a former diplomat who now works for the International Crisis Group, an NGO focused on conflict resolution.  Michael Spavor runs an organization that takes businesses and tourists into North Korea, and famously accompanied Dennis Rodman to meet Kim Jong Un.

Canada’s ambassador to China met Michael Kovrig on Friday, and Michael Spavor on Sunday, but no further details were released, and consular officials are pushing for further access.

The two men’s detention is clearly intended to send a message to the Canadian government over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on December 1 in Vancouver.

If any help was needed divining that message, China’s Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper known for its hardline nationalism, spelled it out, explaining the “legitimacy” of detaining the men, and how the situation, which is described as a “game,” could be resolved.

“It is quite simple to end the crisis between China and Canada by giving back Meng’s complete freedom,” the editorial said. 

A further article in the Global Times the next day threatened to boycott Canadian businesses, for which some signs of trouble are already emerging, and target its tourism industry.

This is clearly being framed by the Chinese government, and its media outlets, as a high-stakes case of “tit-for-tat” in which China is standing its ground.

Let us first retire the idea of any sort of equivalency.  Meng Wanzhou was given immediate access to a lawyer, a timely and transparent court process, and has since been released on bail.

Chinese protestors, and indeed any others too, are free to demonstrate outside the courthouse, as are journalists to write about her case, and openly debate its merits across the U.S. media.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are being held on suspicion of “national security” crimes, which under Chinese law mean they can be held at a secret location, without access to legal counsel, for up to six months

We know from previous cases what that detention can involve, with reports of repeated interrogation, sleep deprivation, and worse.

Now, let’s be clear about the actual message this is sending to the foreign companies, consultants, and analysts currently working in, or on China.

This is not just a ratcheting up of the difficulty of operating there–for businesses to consider whether their assets are protected, their capital outflow restricted, or how they can accommodate a Communist Party cell–this is now about the personal safety of their employees.

It can be somewhat of a journalistic cliché to say this sends a chill down the spine, but these threats are real.

As long as these men are detained, organizations active in China are recalibrating risk assessments, seeking advice, and reviewing travel plans.

On this 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening–when Deng Xiaoping first declared that China would open up to the outside world and set the country on its trajectory to the global superpower we know today–the Communist Party of China (CCP) insists that it is still open for business.  These actions suggest otherwise.

Of course, this must have been weighed at the highest levels of the CCP. The decision to arrest two Canadian citizens, particularly at a time when the country is embroiled in a trade war with the United States, and its economy is slowing, would not have been taken without the consent of senior officials.

So that leaves us with two plausible explanations: either they underestimated the damage this would have do to China’s already deteriorating global image, or they decided it was worth doing anyway.

Perhaps the real message is that any attempt to thwart China’s technological ambitions, of which Huawei is an integral component, will be seen as a threat to national security–and that will come first, no matter the consequences, reputational or economic, that follow.

And that should be even more worrying.