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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

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: It wasn’t until March of 2019 that China got specific about the allegations, claiming that Mr. Kovrig was a spy and stole state secrets, with important intelligence from Mr. Spavor. The allegations, which the men deny, have not been filed as formal charges, but were instead submitted for review, a step toward a possible trial where they would have legal representation. China has not directly linked their cases to Canada’s prosecution of Ms. Meng, which the Communist government has denounced as a politically motivated frame-up.

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.

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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

Meng Wanzhou: The chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December of 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, who is free on bail in a multimillion-dollar Vancouver mansion, denies the allegations against her and is in the process of fighting an extradition order in court.

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

Theodore Kaye/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

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 of 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.


The Dandong Detention Centre is where Mr. Spavor has been kept since May of 2019.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

What could happen next?

The 2020 pandemic has slowed, but not stopped, efforts to resolve the Sino-Canadian impasse. The judge hearing Ms. Meng’s case held a meeting by teleconference between prosecutors and Ms. Meng’s lawyers, but there is no clear timeline to settle the extradition case, to say nothing of the American trial that awaits her if she is extradited.

As for the detainees in China, their 500th day in prison came and went in April with no progress on their case. Canadian diplomats hadn’t seen them in more than three months. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told The Globe the milestone illustrated Beijing’s callousness in the affair:

It’s a reminder to all of us what an almost unimaginably cruel act this has been for the men and their families. Not only are their conditions terrible but they are cut off from any meaningful connection and at this time of pandemic they seem to be even more remote. It’s a hostage-taking and the ransom demand is Meng Wanzhou.


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

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


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