Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian government official
Canadians were stunned to learn last month that one of our citizens, Robert Schellenberg, had lost his appeal in China of his sentence of execution for a drug offence, and that Canadian businessman Michael Spavor had been given an 11-year sentence for fabricated charges of spying. Their cases, and those of Canadian diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and three Chinese-Canadians, Fan Wei, Xu Weihong and Ye Jianhui, have unfolded in parallel to the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, currently in Canada under an extradition request from the United States.
How has the Canadian government handled this challenge, and what can possibly be effective when a country is confronted with the hostage-taking of its citizens?
First, such geopolitical hostage-taking calls for the strongest government response, not appeasement aimed at, for example, sending Meng Wanzhou home. From day one, the government of Canada has condemned the detention of innocent Canadians and demanded their immediate release. It has withstood pressure from business and political circles pleading with the government to release Ms. Meng so that positive relations can resume.
Second, it is important not to allow the hostage-taking to temper other aspects of the government’s relations with China. The government has not performed as well in this regard, despite mounting public pressure to deal forcefully with the new more aggressive China. In the summer of 2019, the Beijing regime told Canadian officials that Canada is not a middle power, it is a small power and has to stop leaning towards the U.S. Since then, Canada has proceeded to act like a small power by walking on eggshells on other China-related issues.
It committed to, and a year later dropped, a plan for a China Policy Framework, with the foreign affairs minister at the time, François-Philippe Champagne, saying that “the China of 2020 is not the China of 2016.” It has deferred announcements of expected negative decisions on allowing Huawei into Canada’s 5G systems and on the airing of forced confessions on Chinese networks broadcasting in Canada. It has held back on initiatives it would normally have taken with Taiwan. Two government reports that contain criticism of China were shelved the day before publication. Beijing’s accusations that Canadian media are too negative concerning China led to unsuccessful efforts by government officials to silence two former Canadian ambassadors critical of Beijing’s actions.
It appears that Canada’s approach of being extra cautious on bilateral matters that might upset China is reflected in the statement of a Canadian official that our trade with China should keep going “unless we do something stupid.” This demonstrates to China that holding leverage over Canada can turn it into a weak, compliant nation. And weak countries get nowhere in dealing with China. Rather, holding fast and diversifying engagement to other countries in the region avoids such vulnerabilities.
Third, the Canadian government has shown that nations without superpower status are best working together to create a common force against Beijing’s actions. It led the development of the Declaration on Arbitrary Detention under which 66 countries agree that taking hostages as a tool in government-to-government relations is unacceptable and illegal under international law. The diplomats of dozens of those countries stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada’s officials during the Michaels’ court hearings. Further, with the U.S. and the EU, Canada imposed Magnitsky-style sanctions on four senior officials and a corporation in Xinjiang following the unanimous vote in the House of Commons that China is perpetrating a genocide there. With many other countries, Canada has called out China’s abuses at the UN Human Rights Council. And like our allies, the Canadian government quickly adopted policies to welcome immigrants and asylum seekers from Hong Kong following the introduction of the national security law. A further constructive step would be for Western allies to commit not to take advantage when another ally is under sudden trade punishment by China, as Canada and Australia have been.
Finally, the government is effectively reducing the value of the hostages to Beijing by demonstrating that they are a liability attracting significant loss of face to China. People around the world now know about the Michaels. The Beijing 2022 Olympics will suffer when athletes and visitors learn that, travelling from the airport to their hotel, they will be driving close by Michael Kovrig’s prison.
While our Canadians are still being held, a positive court ruling for Ms. Meng or U.S. measures may yet win their release. But any solution must conform with relevant laws and due process, not just serve to appease China. And the government of Canada must not be cowed by China’s pressure – or Beijing will learn that taking hostages and bullying other governments works.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.