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People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, on March 6, 2019.LINDSEY WASSON/Reuters

Peter Humphrey is an external research associate of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies who spent nearly five decades as an educator, foreign correspondent and fraud-and-due-diligence investigator focused on China. He was wrongfully detained in China from 2013 to 2015 on a false charge of illegal information gathering, and has since worked as a pro bono mentor for families of wrongfully detained foreigners in China.

It is not unusual for friends in the business and diplomatic community or journalists to trade political gossip over a drink in a bar. It is not unusual for somebody who resides in China, and does travel regularly to North Korea, to gossip with their mates about what is going on in the Hermit Kingdom – though it is unusual for anybody to frequent there.

But for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both of whom were hostages of Beijing on false espionage charges for three years, this habit of old friends has turned toxic.

Mr. Spavor is now pursuing a settlement from the Canadian government, alleging that Mr. Kovrig passed those tidbits about Pyongyang on to Canadian intelligence, and argues that this is what landed the two men in Chinese jails from December, 2018, to September, 2021, as reported by The Globe and Mail. Having myself been wrongfully imprisoned by Xi Jinping’s China for two years, I sympathized with the two Michaels’ plight and worked for their release in my own private way, alongside a furious media and diplomatic campaign.

The split that appears to be emerging between the two men is therefore saddening, and leaves me wondering who would really gain from it.

For many years, Mr. Spavor was a business consultant facilitating visits to North Korea, where he had befriended the dictator Kim Jong-un. And for many years, Mr. Kovrig was a specialist on China, first as a Canadian diplomat and intelligence contributor, and later as a consultant with the International Crisis Group, the role that he held at the time of the pair’s abduction by Mr. Xi’s security service after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada.

It is not clear how negotiations around the settlement will go. But Mr. Spavor’s allegations that Mr. Kovrig got him arrested by playing North Korean gossip back to Canadian intelligence does not fit with my experience of Chinese realities.

China didn’t arrest Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig for any genuine or serious crime. They were diplomatic hostages, an abuse frequently practised by China, and in this case they were taken as retaliation for Canada detaining Ms. Meng. Their release came immediately after she was freed, making it ultra-clear what this was all about.

It is well-known that China keeps a list of foreigners from Western nations to target as hostages in diplomatic crises. The Michaels have not been the only victims of this practice. As a captive of the Chinese state myself, I was interrogated daily in a cage by the same kind of goons who squeezed Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. I was also clumsily accused of and pressed to admit to espionage in relation to Xinjiang and North Korea. But I did not yield, and I managed to shake off this charge; in the end I was convicted under a lesser but still false charge of illegal information gathering. This duress, however, is difficult to endure.

Now, the Chinese narrative is reportedly being repeated by Mr. Spavor, which has divided the two ex-prisoners and the Canadian establishment as well – and that plays neatly into Chinese hands again. Beijing is surely laughing about the allegations, saying that they justify their prosecution and conviction, and prove the Michaels were spying after all. But espionage remains ungrounded as a charge at that time simply because the gossip that was exchanged did not concern Chinese secrets; according to Mr. Spavor and his lawyers, as reported by The Globe, it was information about North Korea, and not about China, that led to his detention, and like most countries, China’s anti-espionage legislation only targeted people who leak or steal Chinese state secrets. At least, that was certainly the case when the two men were grabbed by Chinese state security in 2018; the espionage law was amended earlier this year into something much vaguer and wider in scope. In fact, the legislation revision looks like a retroactive effort to legally justify prior misuse of the law – a recurrent Chinese legislative habit.

This situation may or may not resolve satisfactorily for Mr. Spavor. But what is clear is that the allegations have already been extremely damaging to Mr. Kovrig, to Canada, to everybody who loved, supported and campaigned for both men, and to the wider West.

Editor’s note: Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Michael Spavor was suing the Canadian government. This version has been updated.

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