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China's ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, speaks as part of a panel at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, on March 4, 2020. Mr. Peiwu dismissed Canada's accusations of 'hostage diplomacy' in the case involving Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were detained in China for more than 1,000 days.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, said last month that Ottawa’s accusations of “hostage diplomacy” in the case of two Canadians detained in China were “irresponsible” and a “gross interference” in the country’s judicial sovereignty.

But on Friday, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor boarded a plane to Canada, hours after a Vancouver court dropped an extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who had reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors and is herself on a flight home.

It was a dramatic reversal that shocked most observers, many of whom had been wary of the fact that the U.S. deal with Ms. Meng made no mention of the two Michaels, who had been detained in China for more than 1,000 days.

The expectation was that the pair would likely languish in prison for at least another month. Beijing has made a show of going through legal procedures to give them early release, including officially jailing Mr. Kovrig. He was found guilty of espionage earlier this year, but had yet to receive a sentence.

Earlier this month, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said “the Meng Wanzhou incident and the cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are entirely different in nature.”

“Facts have proved again that what the Canadian side pursues is to confuse right and wrong and shift blames to China. China firmly rejects and strongly condemns that,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a news conference. “The Canadian side should own up to the issue, stop misleading public opinion and mudslinging, and stop slandering and smearing China. In the meantime, it should immediately rectify its mistakes, release Meng Wanzhou and ensure her safe return to China.”

For years, Ms. Meng’s return has been a major priority for Beijing. It will be treated as a victory back home, even if the Chinese government will now face awkward questions from other countries with citizens detained there.

Referring to the cases of Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun – both of whom remain imprisoned in China – Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University, said that “Canada’s first experience of China’s hostage diplomacy is over. Australia’s continues.”

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor: After 1,020 days imprisoned in China, the two detainees arrive home in Canada

Campbell Clark: Beijing finally releases two Michaels, but a hard lesson can’t be forgotten

Explainer: Two Michaels and Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou have now been freed. The Canadians’ story so far

The almost immediate release of the two Michaels following Ms. Meng’s case being dropped was “absolute confirmation that this was arbitrary detention all along – and that the risk for others will endure,” Mr. Medcalf wrote on Twitter.

Ms. Meng is due to arrive Saturday evening, China time, according to flight data. After almost three years away from China, she can expect a hero’s welcome when she lands.

In a statement, Huawei Technologies said: “We look forward to seeing Ms. Meng returning home safely to be reunited with her family. Huawei will continue to defend itself against the allegations in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.”

Official reaction to her release was muted late Friday in Canada, perhaps due to the sensitivity around the release of the two Michaels.

In one of the few extensive stories about her release in state media, Global Times, a nationalist tabloid that previously launched a petition for Ms. Meng’s release, quoted experts as saying the move “may help ease the frozen China-Canada tie and frictions between China and the US.”

It added that Ms. Meng had been “illegally detained” by the Canadian government “based on so-called accusations of fraud levelled by the US.”

The report did not mention the two Canadians, though it noted “mounting pressure that Canada has been facing as it clearly knows that if it insists on the extradition of Meng to the US, it would create irretrievable negative consequences on China-Canada relations.”

“Over the past years, Chinese diplomats and experts have urged the Trudeau administration many times to correct its mistake of serving as Washington’s willing accomplice that has dragged China-Canada relations to freezing point,” Global Times wrote.

As users on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, woke up on Saturday to news of her release, many celebrated under the hashtag “Meng Wanzhou returns home.” They shared videos of the Huawei executive reading a statement outside the Vancouver court, where the charges against her were dropped, and later, boarding a plane to Shenzhen.

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