Hugh Stephens is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and spent 28 years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, including postings to five Canadian missions in Asia.
Embassies do tremendous work to promote their home countries' interests abroad, staffed as they are by bright, worldly people. But they can’t do it all. Quite often, especially in complicated situations, embassies employ a local PR firm to assist them in managing media requests and putting their best foot forward in their country of accreditation, to ensure that they’re taking local sensibilities into account.
If the Chinese embassy in Ottawa has such an adviser, I would hope that the advice provided to Ambassador Lu Shaye is the equivalent of “Shut up already.”
The point of media outreach is to balance the narrative, and at the very least, to "do no harm.” Mr. Lu would be wise to consider this. After his initial op-ed on Dec. 13 in The Globe and Mail in which he described the Vancouver arrest of Meng Wanzhou, on the basis of a U.S. Justice Department arrest warrant and extradition request, as a “groundless detention,” Mr. Lu has upped the ante with another missive. In The Hill Times, he accused Canadians who have criticized China’s arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on alleged national security violations of “Western egotism and white supremacy,” alleging there is a double standard on justice for Canadians and Chinese.
Actually, on this last point, he is correct. The treatment that Ms. Meng has received in Canada, while no doubt unwelcome from her point of view, has been transparent, correct, expeditious, and fair. She was given access to legal counsel, her bail hearing was open, and she is now out on bail resting comfortably, one presumes, in the confines of her Vancouver home. Exactly the opposite is the case for the two Canadians who have been detained, but not yet charged in China. They have been provided very limited consular access, there have been no charges or bail hearings, they have been provided no access to legal counsel, and we can only speculate on what conditions they are being held in.
It is worth noting that the process of Chinese law is different from that in Canada, which is based on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, with evidence adjudicated on an adversarial basis. China follows a civil law system, as is the case in other countries like Germany, Japan, and Korea; that system is adjudicated inquisitorially, instead. In other words, accused are held and extensively investigated by a prosecutor before charges are laid. If charges are forthcoming, the result is a high rate of conviction. That is the situation Carlos Ghosn is facing in Japan – but there, Mr. Ghosn has legal counsel and open bail hearings.
The slowness of China’s civil system is compounded by vague national security laws, where detainees can be held for up to six months while investigations continue. According to Mr. Lu, taking a page from Donald Trump’s book, “elites” in Canada “completely dismissed China’s law and presumptuously urged China to immediately release their citizens.” Of course, when China learned of Ms. Meng’s detention on Dec. 5, China called for her “immediate release.”
If China truly wants other countries to respect its legal system, this can be accomplished with actual transparency.
China has also claimed that there is no connection between the detentions of the two Canadians and Ms. Meng’s arrest. “Those who accuse China of detaining some person in retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Meng should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side,” Mr. Lu wrote in The Globe and Mail. But make no mistake: Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are hostages. As Donald Clarke, professor of law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has noted, the critical element of a hostage-taking is that the perpetrator must tell you that it is a hostage-taking, and what his demands are, or otherwise the whole point is lost. As Mr. Clarke states: “The Chinese ambassador to Canada has not just admitted it; he has also proclaimed it in an op-ed.”
Then there is the issue of Huawei and whether it can be trusted to participate in the installation of 5G equipment in Canada. In The Hill Times, Mr. Lu noted that some people in Canada have been promoting the idea that Chinese law requires Chinese companies to collaborate with the government in espionage activities. Without denying this, he goes on to point to the hypocrisy of programs like PRISM – which allowed the U.S. National Security Agency to eavesdrop on its own citizens, as exposed by Edward Snowden – in effect implying that Huawei would co-operate in the same way with the Chinese authorities as some U.S. companies did with the NSA. This is hardly reassuring. In fact, new Chinese security laws require that any organization and citizen shall “support, provide assistance, and co-operate in national intelligence work.” Whether “national intelligence work” is different from “espionage activities” no doubt depends on your point of view. It is not surprising that Huawei, a Chinese company, would bow to the will of the Chinese government if push came to shove, just as many U.S. companies apparently did by co-operating with the NSA, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
It is his playing of the “white supremacy” race card that is the most offensive. Canada has a history of discrimination against Asian minorities; no one denies that. But to equate that history with the unequal legal treatment being meted out to a Chinese national in Canada and to two Canadian nationals in China in 2019 is to stand logic on its head. Using inflammatory language may play well back home – and perhaps his messages were intended more for a domestic audience, rather than a Canadian one. But for a Chinese diplomat, Mr. Lu’s utter lack of diplomacy has not helped China’s case.