Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
It’s been more than two years since two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – were detained by the Chinese government, charged with national security offences, held in solitary confinement and subjected to intense high-pressure questioning. This appeared to be in retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. request for extradition on bank fraud charges.
The Chinese government has denied any connection between the two cases, even though its officials have hinted broadly that the men could well be released if Canada allowed Ms. Meng to return home. As a result, China stands guilty in the eyes of many of the heinous offence of hostage diplomacy.
The difference in treatment that the two Michaels have received in comparison to Ms. Meng – who has been able to live in her $15-million Vancouver mansion and has been free to travel around the city despite being tagged electronically – is staggering. So it is little wonder that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor could do with some Christmas cheer this month.
Yet, the reality is that both governments are acting according to their respective laws. China likes to say that it does everything according to law. Thus, people are arrested, questioned, tried and imprisoned according to law. But its law is clearly quite different from law in other countries.
One example of the way in which Chinese law is used is the way it dealt with another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg. He was involved in a narcotics offence and was tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail in November, 2018.
However, one month after the RCMP arrested Ms. Meng at Vancouver’s airport on Dec. 1, 2018, Mr. Schellenberg, who had appealed the verdict, had a retrial – and was sentenced to death. Of course, everything was done according to Chinese law.
On Dec. 10, 2019, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was asked why the two Canadians reportedly had no access to families or lawyers in their first year of detention.
The answer they got back was pure obfuscation. “We have repeatedly provided information on the two Canadian citizens upon request,” Hua Chunying responded. “China’s judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law and protect the two Canadian citizens’ lawful rights.” Not a word was said about access to families or lawyers.
Pressed on the specific question of whether the two Canadians had been allowed to see lawyers and family members, Ms. Hua replied: “China’s judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law.” She never answered the question.
Her non-answer raises the question: What are the “lawful rights” supposedly protected by Chinese law? Why won’t the government spokesperson spell them out?
This policy of hiding behind a smokescreen of supposed legal rights was on view again just more than a week ago, when Haze Fan, a Chinese citizen working for the Bloomberg News bureau in Beijing, was arrested on national security charges.
Again, the Chinese Foreign Ministry offered assurances that “the Chinese government protects citizens’ freedom of speech according to law.” Unfortunately, such supposed legal protections don’t seem to amount to much in China.
Hostage diplomacy may be a relatively new term, but it is certainly not a new practice for China. More than 50 years ago, British journalist Anthony Grey was imprisoned in Beijing from 1967 to 1969. The Reuters correspondent recounted his experience in the book Hostage in Peking, where he described how touched he was when he learned, after his release, that several thousand people had sent him Christmas cards while he was under arrest.
This has inspired Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and a friend of Mr. Kovrig’s, to organize a campaign to send Christmas cards to the two Canadians via Chinese embassies. As he told Voice of America in an interview from London: “I suddenly thought a contemporary version to that would be to send the Christmas card, but make sure that before you send it to the Chinese Embassy, that you put it online, with whatever social media you wish, under the hashtag #FreeChinaHostages, so that lots of people can see it.”
This way, Chinese embassies around the world would learn how much support these Canadians have. If the cards actually reach their hands, it will no doubt provide them with some Christmas solace.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world can show that they care about the way people are treated by China.
Hopefully, the buildup of publicity of people sending Christmas cards to the imprisoned Canadians will put moral pressure on China, causing it to abandon the repugnant, uncivilized and inhuman practice of hostage diplomacy. And that would certainly be worth celebrating – this Christmas, and every one after it.
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