Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Vancouver, Jan. 21, 2020: A young man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor outside B.C. Supreme Court where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Kovrig and Spavor: The basics

Who they are: Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who was in China working as an analyst and researcher for a think tank called the International Crisis Group. Michael Spavor is an entrepreneur who has worked to promote business and cultural ties between North Korea and the West. On Dec. 10, 2018 – days after Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou (more on her later) – they were separately detained in China and accused of breaking national-security laws. They have been in Chinese custody ever since.

What China accuses them of: The men are charged with espionage, but it took more than 18 months after their arrests for those charges to be formally laid. They deny the allegations, which have not been tested in court, a process that could take years in the Chinese judicial system. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.

What their detention is like: Mr. Kovrig is being held in Beijing and Mr. Spavor in Dandong, and neither one has had much access to the outside world. The Globe’s Asia correspondent visited their prisons a year after their detention, learning they were interrogated for months in solitary confinement-like conditions; guards initially seized Mr. Kovrig’s glasses; and their lights were kept on 24 hours a day. China’s COVID-19 epidemic later made them even more unreachable, even by Canadian consular staff, because prisons were closed to visitors.


A who’s who

The Chinese side

Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou leaves her Vancouver home for a court date in January, 2020.

Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters/Reuters

Meng Wanzhou: The chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018. She is accused by U.S. prosecutors of lying to financial institutions as part of a scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran and do business there through a subsidiary. The U.S. Justice Department has also indicted Huawei itself and some of its subsidiaries, accusing them of a decade-long scheme of bank fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Ms. Meng denies the allegations and is fighting an extradition order in court, though she lost a ruling in May, 2020, where a judge decided that the crimes she’s accused of in the United States would also be illegal if committed in Canada.

Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei gives an interview in Shenzhen in December, 2019.

Theodore Kaye/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Ren Zhengfei: Ms. Meng’s father founded Huawei, became a billionaire as he expanded its reach abroad and is now aiming to make it the dominant global player in 5G wireless networks. Its technology is under intense global scrutiny by the United States and its allies over fears that it could be used for Chinese espionage. Mr. Ren has pressed Canada for his daughter’s release, and offered to help arrange Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s freedom in exchange.

Cong Peiwu: As ambassador to Canada, Mr. Cong is a key figure in Beijing’s efforts to win Ms. Meng’s release and convince Canada that Huawei’s technology is safe.

Wang Yi: China’s Foreign Minister has talked several times with his Canadian counterpart about Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

The Canadian side

Dominic Barton gives an interview to The Canadian Press in 2016.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Dominic Barton: Canada’s ambassador to China took his job in the middle of the Kovrig-Spavor saga after his predecessor, John McCallum, was fired in January, 2019, for suggesting to Chinese-language media that Ms. Meng had a chance of avoiding extradition to the United States. Mr. Barton is now the detainees’ main advocate in China.

François-Philippe Champagne: Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister has been trying to secure Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig’s release in talks with the Chinese government.

Vina Nadjibulla: Mr. Kovrig’s wife has been advocating for the men’s release, coming forward in June of 2020 with letters from her husband in which he described how he’s trying to stay resilient and hopeful. “We cannot at the moment allow the real suffering of these Canadians to continue,” she says.

'Please continue to hope and believe that you will be free one day.' That's the messsage Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig's wife, wants him to hear after being in Chinese custody since 2018. The Globe and Mail


What could happen next?

The Michaels’ case: For a year and a half, China’s government refused to link its arrest of the Canadians with Ms. Meng’s case, but in June of 2020, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested it was “within the rule of law” to release the men if Ms. Meng was freed first. If Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s trial goes ahead, it could take years for them to be sentenced, and in a judicial system with a 99-per-cent conviction rate, their chances of acquittal are slim.

The Meng case: A prisoner swap – like the one that some Chrétien-era politicians and former staffers have suggested – would be a complicated matter for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who says he won’t trade Ms. Meng for the Canadians because it would undermine the independence of Canada’s judiciary. But decisions on extradition are still ultimately political, because they need to be approved by the Justice Minister. Ottawa has the power to release Ms. Meng immediately if it wants to, former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour have argued.


More reading

What life is like for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

Inside the final hours that led to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou


Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe, Steven Chase, Robert Fife and The Canadian Press


Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies