So no one traded anything for anyone. According to official statements, the release, within the space of a few hours, of China’s Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei Technologies executive detained in Canada for nearly three years at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, and Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, held prisoner in China since shortly after Ms. Meng’s arrest, had nothing to do with each other.
Though U.S. President Joe Biden raised the subject of the two Michaels with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a Sept. 9 phone call – and though The Globe and Mail reported that Mr. Biden “insisted any deal to drop the U.S. extradition case” against Ms. Meng “could not happen unless the two Canadians were released at the same time” – there was, in fact, no such deal.
U.S. prosecutors simply decided on their own to drop the charges against Ms. Meng. China, likewise, spontaneously decided to release the two Michaels that same day.
And Canada? Canada, too, officially made no concessions, either to China or the United States. Mr. Biden’s intervention with China on behalf of the two Canadians, like the decision to drop the charges against Ms. Meng, was in return for no undertaking on our part of any kind.
Well, it could be true. After all – like Canada? – the United States has an independent system of prosecutions, in which the President may not interfere. So it’s not clear what offers he could have made with regard to Ms. Meng’s fate. But if there was no deal, why is there such consensus that there was – that, in effect, this was an old-fashioned prisoner swap?
And if China’s latest adventure in hostage diplomacy has proved such a spectacular success – securing the release of one of its most prominent instruments of state-sponsored industrial espionage in return for two random dudes from a country that isn’t even America – why is it assumed much will change after this, either in China’s approach or our own?
The supposition is that the Liberal government’s China policy has been held hostage along with the two Michaels – that so long as they were imprisoned Canada was obliged to look the other way at a succession of Chinese outrages against our interests and our values, but that now that they have been released we are free, as one international-relations professor described it, to “stop pussyfooting around.”
Really? Leave aside that China continues to hold more than a hundred Canadians, including Robert Schellenberg, sentenced to death for drug smuggling not long after the two Michaels’ arrest, and Huseyin Celil, the Canadian citizen and ethnic Uyghur who has been sitting in a Chinese jail cell since 2006. If we were unwilling to stand up to China for as long as the two Michaels were imprisoned, why would we be any more willing to do so while the others remain?
But in truth Canada’s policy of strategic pussyfooting long predates the two Michaels’ arrest. The causation is, if anything, the other way: Canadian policy on China has not been weak and vacillating because they were taken prisoner – they were taken prisoner, arguably, because we were so weak and vacillating. There’s a reason China targeted Canada, rather than the U.S., for retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest: because they knew, or suspected, it would work better against us.
Or if pussyfooting in the face of hostage-takings is obligatory, how is it that Australia has been able to take so much stronger a line than we have, though it has at least as many of its citizens in Chinese jails? In recent years, Australia has banned Huawei from its 5G wireless network, passed legislation to restrict foreign influence operations, and routinely and forthrightly denounced China for its human-rights abuses at home and offences against international law abroad.
Has the Canadian government done any of these? What will it do, now that the two Michaels have been released? Will it impose Magnitsky-style sanctions against leading members of the Chinese government? Will it oppose China’s application for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Will it form closer alliances with China’s rivals in the region, including India?
Will it speak up now against Chinese human-rights abuses: the suppression of Hong Kong, the genocide of the Uyghurs, the decades-long suffocation of Tibet? Will it at long last recognize Taiwan as an independent country?
Don’t bet on it. It isn’t concern for the fate of the two Michaels that has prevented the government from taking a stronger stand on China. It is a seamy amalgam of other considerations, from protecting the business interests of prominent Liberals to geopolitical fantasies of Canada as a “middle power” between the U.S. and Chinese hegemons.
That was the problem before they were taken hostage; it will remain the problem long after.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.