Guy Saint-Jacques served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.
Even if the recent allegations by Michael Spavor are true – that he was unwittingly used by Michael Kovrig in intelligence-collection activities, which he said led to the two being detained by China – it would not be the main reason why he was arrested.
I have much sympathy for his painful ordeal in a Chinese jail, and I wish him the best for the rest of his life. But ultimately and unfortunately, he had unique access to Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, the only country with which China has a formal alliance – access that Chinese officials could only dream of. Beijing was likely just waiting for the right moment to arrest him and have an opportunity to question him, and hostage diplomacy offered just such an opportunity.
China has become expert at using coercive measures, including effectively taking people hostage, to force a country to do what it wants. This has happened twice to Canadians in recent years, following American extradition requests of Chinese residents in Canada: Kevin and Julia Garratt in 2014, after the arrest of Su Bin, and the two Michaels in 2018, after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.
Surveillance is part of Beijing’s approach. Foreigners living in China must assume that their e-mails will be read, their conversations listened to and their travels watched. Depending on the field of activity of the person, his or her name will be put on a list of interest that can be used if and when needed. The advice I have often given to businesspeople or Canadians living in China was to keep in mind that the country’s surveillance apparatus, with its hundreds of millions of cameras, made it impossible for anyone to travel incognito in the country or have private conversations. I have myself repeatedly seen examples where it was clear that my e-mails had been read or my conversations had been intercepted. Living there as a foreign national means you have to accept this reality without becoming paranoid.
The Chinese Communist Party is also a master at keeping its political system as opaque as possible. Since Xi Jinping took over as General Secretary of the CCP in 2012, Beijing has tightened its controls on national security, under definitions that have been broadened to cover almost anything. Many things have become state secrets – even the unemployment rate among young Chinese people, which Beijing stopped publishing this summer after the numbers got worse and worse.
Complicating the situation are reports that Mr. Kovrig had served as a diplomatic officer of the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP). After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Global Affairs decided to create the GSRP, tasking it with developing more expertise in countries of interest to Canada, including for security reasons. There are only a few people at best who work in any political section of an embassy, and they have many responsibilities, making it difficult to become specialists. So GSRP officers travel around a given country, meeting with local officials, academics and foreigners living in the region, as well as the common people, to try to get a feel for what is going on.
However, GSRP work is very different from the work conducted by spies, who operate in a covert way and will try to compensate people to share sensitive information, or force them to do so. GSRP officers don’t force anyone to meet with them and will take precautions to avoid problems. I should add that it is becoming more and more difficult to travel to parts of China such as Tibet and Xinjiang because China does not want embassy personnel to have a chance to make their own impressions about the local situation. In fact, we should ourselves think about imposing similar restrictions on Chinese diplomats operating in Canada.
Of course, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa has already jumped on the allegations of intelligence collection made by Mr. Spavor, since it serves Beijing’s narrative that the two Michaels were involved in spying activities. But this much is clear: Nobody else should have to go through what Mr. Spavor had to go through. Let us hope that Canada’s Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations will deter China from using hostage diplomacy in the future.