Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

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

Six hundred days. Almost eighty-six weeks. Fourteen thousand and four hundred hours. That is how long, as of Saturday, two innocent Canadian men have been political hostages of the government of China.

We keep reading that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are suffering in conditions “akin” to torture, but there is no such thing. Their false arrest and unjustified incarceration amount to torture, period.

It is enough that they have been deprived of their liberty and their basic human rights. The fact they were held for months in cells with the lights on permanently, are fed little better than gruel and have been repeatedly subjected to interrogations designed to force them to confess to crimes they did not commit only worsens the injustice. But there are no attenuating circumstances under which one can say their conditions are anything less than utterly inhumane. The Chinese government is trying to hurt us, by hurting them.

And now as they pass 600 days in prison, it is clear that what was once an attempt by the Chinese government to pervert Canada’s foreign and domestic policies has failed. Ottawa has made it clear it will not pay the demanded ransom; that it will not arbitrarily release Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese tech executive being held under house arrest in Vancouver on an extradition request from the United States.

As such, the continued torture of the two Michaels will change nothing, and is no more than pointless cruelty.

No Canadian, or anyone else, can remain blind to what China has become under Xi Jinping, the president for life of the People’s Republic of China. He has transformed his country into one whose only diplomatic tool is the closed fist. There is no compassion, sophistication or moderation in Beijing today.

China under Mr. Xi wants to claim its place as a superpower, and to exercise the influence it believes is its due. But it is doing it on its terms. After decades of international relations dominated by the values and institutions set up by Western, democratic countries – including respect for sovereign rights and a desire to use diplomacy over force – Beijing is rewriting the rules of the global order to suit its authoritarian nature.

The violation of its “one country, two systems” agreement in Hong Kong; the punishing sanctions imposed on trading partners that stand up to it; the kidnapping of citizens of countries that displease it; the aggressive conditions and demands it imposes on foreign companies doing business inside its borders; the hectoring and petulant language its government spokespeople use to attack foreign critics. These are the ways of Chinese diplomacy in 2020.

For the foreseeable future, that’s the hand that has been dealt to middle powers, such as Canada, that Beijing aims to bend to its will through coercion and threat.

Canada and China have mutual economic interests that will keep the two countries talking to each other, in spite of the kidnapping of the two Michaels. Every Canadian of good conscience wishes this were otherwise; that Ottawa could play from a position of greater strength and force Beijing to free our hostages.

But it can’t. And so our two countries will continue to exchange goods and services. Canada will not stop welcoming immigrants, students and tourists from China. It won’t stop trying to develop new markets for its products in China, or cut itself off from the many international supply chains that now run inevitably through China.

At the same time, the Canadian government will stand its ground on Ms. Meng, who is free to live at her home in Vancouver, and whose many lawyers are pushing her case through a legal system that presumes her innocence. And it will continue to protest the arrests of the two Michaels, and to work with allies to try to rein in the excesses of the Chinese government.

Canada will also work to create alliances independent from China, and build supply chains and trade relationships separate from it.

But while Ottawa does its job, Canadians are daily reminded of the pointless cruelty Beijing has inflicted on two innocent compatriots.

Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig should be home in Canada with their families. Instead they are suffering at the whim of a rigged justice system, permanent hostages to a failed blackmail attempt. Canadians won’t forget this.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe