In the days after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese government has shown little of the rage that has permeated its posture toward Canada over the past 18 months.
At an annual press conference in which he addresses important matters of foreign affairs, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made no mention of Canada. On Friday, China’s foreign-ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not threaten “countermeasures” toward Canada – and instead spoke about the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year. This was a surprisingly warm signal from Mr. Zhao, who has been among China’s more strident official voices.
Even the Global Times, the nationalistic tabloid backed by the Communist Party, showed signs of restraint.
Shortly after the court ruled against arguments from Ms. Meng that she should be discharged from the extradition process, the newspaper warned in two articles that the “worst-ever” period between Canada and China was about to begin and fulminated against the “outrageously wrong” decision. But neither article appeared in the newspaper’s Chinese edition, an indication that the message being sent domestically is less provocative.
Similarly, other state media gave the extradition ruling little attention, publishing brief reports on the responses from Huawei and the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. The United States is seeking to extradite Ms. Meng, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., of lying to a bank about the company’s business dealings in a bid to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
None of this rules out harsher measures from China, which over the past 1½ years has blocked Canadian agricultural imports, temporarily frozen high-level diplomatic contacts with Ottawa and sentenced two Canadians to death, in addition to the arrests of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig that are widely seen as “hostage diplomacy.”
Still, the Chinese government has warmed to Canada in the midst of the pandemic, particularly after Ottawa struck an independent position from the U.S. in its refusal to single out Chinese citizens for travel restrictions.
Chinese scholars cast doubt on Beijing responding with anger to the court decision last week.
There is little chance of new “tangible restrictions” on Canada from China, such as more arrests or trade retaliation, said Dong Yikun, a researcher with the National Centre for Canadian Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“I don't think China will launch obvious countermeasure against Canada in short run,” she said.
“What we are most likely to see is a stagnation, a lack of change from either side in Canada-China relations.”
Much has changed for Beijing since the arrest of Ms. Meng in Vancouver in late 2018, and the subsequent incarceration of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor in China.
Since then, China has escalated disputes with other countries, including Australia and India. Sharply worded rhetoric from Chinese diplomats in several European countries has done little to aid the country’s interests there. Britain, for example, has shown new reticence to approve the installation of Huawei 5G equipment.
Meanwhile, the trade war between Beijing and Washington has grown more punishing, The U.S. is preparing new punitive measures against Chinese companies and officials in response to the mass incarceration of Uyghur people and the imposition of a national-security law on Hong Kong.
“In the coming six months, we will see many countermeasures and response measures in China’s strategy, just like the measures it has taken to respond to the U.S.,” Prof. Dong said. “But the target won’t be Canada.”
The Chinese government’s anger with Canada was based in part on its support for Huawei, a Shenzhen-based technology giant that has been among China’s most successful companies in building a globe-straddling business.
But Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and Chinese President Xi Jinping have “always had a complicated relationship,” said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S.
The Chinese leader “at some level probably thought that Mr. Ren had brought a lot of this on himself, with his shadowy non-public way of operating.” Until Ms. Meng was arrested, Mr. Ren rarely gave interviews.
Mr. Johnson says there is reason to believe China may not hit back at Canada over the recent court decision.
“I’m not sure that there will be a tremendous amount of additional punitive actions,” he said.
However, China has numerous avenues to exact retribution. It hasn’t yet formally charged Mr. Kovrig or Mr. Spavor; doing so would further enmesh them in a justice system with a conviction rate above 99.9 per cent.
Chinese judicial authorities can also move quickly to execute Fan Wei or Robert Schellenberg, the two Canadians sentenced to death on drug charges. The Chinese government has maintained that both men deserve punishment.
“Drug-related crimes are serious crimes acknowledged by the whole world, and they have very severe social impacts. All countries punish them,” Mr. Zhao said last week. He also said that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are “suspected of engaging in activities undermining China’s national security.”
China has continually called for the immediate release of Ms. Meng.
But Mr. Zhao also spoke about better times, pointing out that 2020 marks 50 years since China and Canada established diplomatic ties.
“The development of China-Canada relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties shows that a healthy and stable China-Canada relationship serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples, and the key is to respect and treat each other as equals,” he said.
“We hope that Canada will make a correct political decision and take measures to remove the obstacles to the development of our bilateral relations as soon as possible and take concrete actions to bring China-Canada relations back onto the right track.”
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