When Meng Wanzhou makes her latest court appearance on Monday, it will be more than a year since she was first escorted into Courtroom 20 for her bail hearing. Inside the high-tech, high-security fortress in the basement of the B.C. Supreme Court, a packed gallery of curious supporters and media from around the world studied her face through bulletproof glass.
Ms. Meng will be back in that courtroom on Monday for the start of her formal extradition hearing, a protracted process that could stretch on for months. At the end of it, a judge will ultimately decide whether the Huawei heiress and chief financial officer will be extradited to the U.S. to face fraud charges.
U.S. prosecutors allege Ms. Meng made misrepresentations to foreign banks, including HSBC, about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom Tech. The U.S. Department of Justice describes Skycom as a Huawei subsidiary that sold telecommunications equipment to Iran, putting the financial institutions at risk of violating U.S. sanctions against the Middle Eastern country. If convicted, Ms. Meng could face a significant prison sentence.
Ms. Meng has spent her year of partial house arrest in Vancouver, accompanied by her husband and a rotating cast of family members. Her mundane existence has given few hints that she has become a potent flashpoint in U.S.-China relations and spurred China to block billions of dollars in Canadian agricultural imports.
Ms. Meng has given no interviews over the past year, but open letters and notes she has written to employees and supporters, coupled with sightings and interviews with those who know her, offer a glimpse into her past year.
Her first message to the public came on Dec. 11, 2018, when she released on $10-million bail and moved to her home in the affluent Dunbar neighbourhood. With journalists staking out the property and passersby snapping photos, the 47-year-old executive posted a short note to WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app.
“I am in Vancouver and back with my family,” she wrote. “I am proud of Huawei, I am proud of my motherland. Thanks to everyone who cares about me.”
She included an image of a ballerina’s feet, one neatly wrapped in a satin pointe shoe, the other bare, mangled and bandaged. “Behind all greatness is suffering,” reads the accompanying text. It’s an image repurposed from an old Huawei ad intended to convey the hard work that went into building the company – the largest private enterprise in China.
There are indications Ms. Meng is not close with the man who runs the telecom giant – her father, Ren Zhengfei. Huawei’s founder did not learn about his daughter’s arrest in December, 2018, from Ms. Meng directly. Instead, she called the company’s legal department first, who passed the news on to Mr. Ren.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in December, he waved away a question on the subject. “Of course she should contact the legal department first, as this is a legal issue,” he said.
Throughout last winter and spring, Ms. Meng attended procedural hearings, each time rushing from home to waiting vehicle to courtroom as shutters clicked, reporters shouted questions and the security detail she is paying for – court-imposed, to ensure she abides by her bail conditions – acted more as personal bodyguards. She dressed down in hoodies and yoga pants, tuques and newsboy caps. She said not a word to the public.
In May, Ms. Meng relocated to her other Vancouver property, a newly renovated home recently assessed at $13.6-million that her legal team said would offer better security. The 8,100-square-foot, seven-bedroom house with manicured lawns stands in stark contrast to the living conditions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have languished in Chinese prisons since being detained in apparent retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest.
Within days of the move, Ms. Meng sent a letter to Huawei employees expressing gratitude for their support, which she said buoyed her spirits despite the constraints of her bail conditions, which stipulated that she must wear a GPS monitor, remain under constant surveillance and stay away from the airport.
“Every time a court hearing has finished, I have seen Huawei employees staying up all night just to follow my case in distant time zones. This has brought me to tears,” read Ms. Meng’s letter, which the company translated into English. “Your concern has warmed my heart and your support has filled me with power.”
By then, more than five months had passed since her arrest, and the U.S. moved to level economic sanctions against Huawei. Mr. Ren, who initially passed off Ms. Meng’s incarceration as a “misunderstanding,” began to think of his daughter, whom he called “innocent,” as a pawn in a larger U.S. action against the company.
Asked how he expected to resolve the issue, he made no comment about his daughter, answering instead that Huawei began to “speed up efforts to improve our internal systems and product development.”
In Vancouver, Ms. Meng’s life plodded along. She was seen perusing the luxury retailer Holt Renfrew and eating at its French-inspired café. An onlooker who recognized the high-profile detainee at the next table, where she sat with two companions, snapped photos of the group eating yam fries and salad before a member of Ms. Meng’s security detail directed a waitress to put a stop to it.
As summer turned to fall, there was a sudden change: Ms. Meng began attending court proceedings in head-to-toe designer outfits: Chanel dresses, Jimmy Choo stilettos, a Hermes handbag valued at upwards of $10,000, by some accounts.
Instead of rushing about, she now walked confidently with her shoulders back and head held high. She thanked supporters for attending and media for covering her case.
“There have been countless studies, from MIT to Princeton University, that showcase the power of appearance in swaying public opinion on issues like trustworthiness or competency,” said Lexi Pathak, vice-president and partner at Faulhaber Communications, a marketing agency that specializes in lifestyle brands.
“Ms. Meng has gone from hiding her face and wearing nondescript clothing like yoga pants to openly engaging with the press and dressing in an extremely polished manner... that actually draws attention to her GPS monitor. In this case, one might surmise that she is taking an active stance to exude grace, calm and confidence in the public eye to help influence how she is being perceived.”
In fact, those were the exact descriptors that began to circulate among Chinese netizens. Chrison, one of the country’s top fashion bloggers, with more than nine million followers on Weibo, posted about Ms. Meng’s court apparel, saying it upended the Western public’s preconception of the smart but drab Chinese businesswoman.
Wilson Hu, senior vice president of public affairs at Huawei Technologies Canada, said Ms. Meng wasn’t in the mood to care about her outfits after her arrest. However, after months of recovery, she started to return to her normal state.
“It’s her in normal life. [She] didn’t deliberately try to show anything,” he said, noting those appearances fit her social status, fortune and taste.
But he said her distress at her current situation has never changed.
“Her inner stress and the anxiety about the uncertainty of future are always there,” he said in an interview.
On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, she emerged from her home in a red Gucci dress with a China flag pin over her heart, pausing briefly to speak with Chinese-language media.
“I wish my mother country happy birthday, and wish [her] to be thriving and prosperous,” Ms. Meng said. “Wherever we are, our hearts are always with our motherland. Thank you, everyone.”
Later in the month was another birthday: her father’s. In an open letter, Ms. Meng reminisced about the family getting together every year on this day to eat her father’s cooking.
“Today though, I can’t be there with you, eating the food you make, listening to you chitchat, touching your wrinkles or kissing your face,” she wrote. “And I can’t be there to take your critical advice. Remember, you owe me this. Please make it up after I get back home.”
The letter was signed “Piggy.”
As Ms. Meng rounded the corner on one year in Vancouver, she took on a more introspective tone. In an open letter marking the anniversary of her detention, she wrote of the “fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment, and struggle” she had felt, and how her heart and been warmed by the kind words of supporters.
Long work hours and chaotic days back in Shenzhen gave way to the glacial pace of her house arrest conditions, she wrote: “It is so slow that I have enough time to read a book from cover to cover. I can take the time to discuss minutiae with my colleagues, or to carefully complete an oil painting.”
The letter garnered considerable attention on Chinese social media – but likely not for the reasons Ms. Meng had hoped. Days earlier, a former Huawei employee had gone public about being jailed for 251 days after the company accused him of extortion.
On Weibo, numerous replies to a post about Ms. Meng’s letter slyly included the number 251: "Have you been illegally detained in your high-end mansion for 251 days?” one person wrote.
You “deserve it. At least you are living in a mansion," wrote another. “Our ordinary people can only live in a prison cell.”
Chinese prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against the employee because of “unclear criminal facts and insufficient evidence."
Around the same time, Mr. Ren spoke to The Globe in an interview that spanned two hours. In it, Mr. Ren spoke extemporaneously – except when asked about the condition of his daughter. Then, he pulled out a notecard and read a prepared statement: “As parents,” he read, “we do miss our children.” And, he added, “this current situation has had a certain impact on her life. But her mother and her husband have been taking turns to fly to Canada and keep her company.”
Mr. Ren has not travelled to Canada.
“We can talk on the phone – that’s good enough," he said.
With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe