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book review

International affairs correspondent for the Canadian Press Mike Blanchfield and Carleton University professor and president of the World Refugee & Migration Council Fen Osler Hampson were quick out of the gate with their book on the incident.Handout

  • Title: The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War
  • Author: Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Sutherland House
  • Pages: 275

It took nearly three years to sort out the cases of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, arrested in Canada at the behest of the United States, and the two Michaels, Spavor and Kovrig, taken in China in retaliation. When all was said and done, nothing was achieved and everyone involved came out poorer than when they had started. Ms. Meng was placed under house arrest in Canada and later accepted a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States for her role in Huawei’s dealings with Iran in violation of American sanctions. The two Michaels suffered in Chinese prison before being released on “medical” grounds the same day Meng was returned to China. Calling the affair a farce reads as too jovial. It was closer to a catastrophe but it was marked by such buffoonery that it requires a neologism to summarize. Call it a “catastrofarce.”

News has often been called the first draft of history. Then come the books. In The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War, international affairs correspondent for the Canadian Press Mike Blanchfield and Carleton University professor and president of the World Refugee & Migration Council Fen Osler Hampson are quick out of the gate to write the second draft. The two detail the Meng and Michaels affair and place it in context of the struggle between the United States and China, as a declining hegemon and rising rival, with the telecommunications industry, particularly their 5G networks, as a theatre of conflict.

Blanchfield and Hampson’s effort is readable, gripping, spotty and incomplete. At times, the book is incisive, occasionally showing a critical balance that reflects a capacity to hold ideas in tension without succumbing to absolutist thinking. At other times, the authors flatten global history and geopolitics in such a way as to suggest the whole Meng and Michaels affair was like an old Western film: with a good guy dressed in white and a bad guy dressed in black. So, we get a portrait of the Michaels that reads as near-hagiography and one of Meng that reads as the tale of an infantilized, spoiled, semi-competent tool of Huawei and, quite possibly, the Chinese state. Distracting editorial flourishes note that Meng “burrowed into” her security guard’s shoulder “like a frightened child” while we are constantly reminded of her wealth, privilege and “high-flying executive lifestyle.” The Michaels, in contrast, are affable, disciplined, intrepid globetrotters – the kind of guys you’d want to have a beer with.

At its best, the book details the play-by-play of the Meng and Michaels affairs and global efforts to find a resolution. Longer sections detailing efforts to secure the release of the two Michaels by former justice minister Allan Rock, former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and others level cogent critiques of the Trudeau government and their stubborn handling of the file. Blanchfield and Hampson make a strong case, embedded in the storytelling, that Canada could have ended the Meng extradition hearing – a patently politicized and, indeed, political undertaking, especially within the context of U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-China agenda – and improved the chances of the Michaels being released long before they were. But Trudeau worried about the message that would send and stuck to the line that Canada was following the rule of law.

Beyond the storytelling and critique of the Trudeau government, the book sags in parts or, rather, skims deeper discussions that ought to have been elaborated. The United States and China are indeed waist-deep in a great power struggle for global hegemony and, as the authors point out, the titular affair saw Meng and the Michaels dragged into that. But why might China be behaving the way it is? What about a long, cynical, bloody American history and foreign policy that warns us not to take the country at its word while trusting it to police the world? How about Canada’s record while we’re at it? A deeper, critical look at Western history and motivations would have better illuminated the story of Meng and the Michaels.

Beyond the detention of Meng and the arrest of the Michaels as events in and of themselves, The Two Michaels touches on the emerging, perhaps ongoing, Cold War between the United States and China. This is essential context, but its execution was a missed opportunity to explore in depth lessons from the last such outing and the folly that cost so many so much. Instead, Blanchfield and Hampson quote, without critique, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who recalls watching Ronald Reagan say to Mikhail Gorbachev, “We win, you lose,” and keeping “the pressure on” the Soviet Union until “the Cold War was won without a shot being fired.” Perhaps he’d forgotten wars in Vietnam and Korea. And the Cuban Missile Crisis in which shots were indeed fired and in which American air force pilot Rudolf Anderson died when his U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down in Cuba.

No book can entirely capture the intricacies and depths of the domestic and geopolitical histories, foreign policies, and contemporary political particularities that brought about and shaped the Meng and Michaels affairs. The Two Michaels covers some of that while laying out the context and unfolding of a tense three years in which Canada was caught between two superpowers. A more critical and less credulous outing would have better served the cause of helping readers understand the debacle, but perhaps that’s what the third draft of history is for.

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