The Chinese government has issued a new warning to Canada about further “damage” to relations between the two countries – just before a British Columbia judge releases a decision on an extradition hearing for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Canada must “release Ms. Meng and ensure her safe return to China at an early date to avoid more damage caused to China-Canada relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia expects to release its decision Wednesday after an initial hearing in the extradition case against Ms. Meng – 542 days after she was detained at the Vancouver airport at the request of U.S. prosecutors. That enraged China and was followed by a series of punitive measures against Canadian citizens and trade with Canada.
In Beijing Tuesday, Mr. Zhao declined to describe what further damage China could do if Ms. Meng is not released. China has already blocked imports of Canadian agricultural goods and initially froze high-level diplomatic contact with the Canadian government.
But Chinese state media this week threatened an outbreak of public “resentment” if the B.C. court finds against Ms. Meng. “A decision that panders to the Trump administration would only lead to a rise in netizen resentment, which would affect bilateral relations between China and Canada,” the Communist Party-backed Global Times wrote in an editorial published online late Monday.
The sharp language marks a shift in tone for Beijing, which in recent months praised Ottawa for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada did not follow the U.S. in singling out Chinese citizens for a travel ban. Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu also lashed out at a journalist for “feeding into conspiracy theories” when asked about the trustworthiness of China’s official COVID-19 numbers. China subsequently revised the death toll upward in the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, by exactly 50 per cent.
There has also been a shift in tone from Ottawa in recent days toward Beijing. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration last Thursday at persistent disagreement between China and Canada over whether Canada can free Ms. Meng as Beijing requests.
And, in one of the bluntest statements from Ottawa since the saga began, Mr. Trudeau accused China of “retaliation” for detaining and locking up Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor shortly after Ms. Meng was taken into custody in B.C.
China’s warnings this week follow new signals from the country that if the B.C. court sets Ms. Meng free, Beijing could respond by releasing Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. Both men have been accused of state-secret violations but not formally charged.
“It’s clear that the fate of the two Michaels is closely related to the fate of Meng Wanzhou in Canada,” said Cheng Xiaohe, deputy director of the Center for China’s International Strategic Studies at Renmin University of China. “If the Canadian court rules that Meng is to be released, in my opinion, China would also release these two Canadians very quickly.”
Trade between Canada and China would also “become much more normal once Ms. Meng is set free,” said Mr. Cheng, who previously worked for the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, an influential think tank that operates under China’s powerful intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security.
The Chinese government has insisted that there is no connection between Ms. Meng’s situation and the arrests of the two Canadians. Both men are being kept in detention facilities with 24-hour lighting and have been denied consular visits since the outbreak of the pandemic.
But “under the heavens, everything is related … despite the fact that everyone may deny that anything is related,” said Victor Gao, vice-president of the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), another influential think tank closely affiliated with the Chinese government. The CCG has done work for the United Front Work Department, the government division whose responsibilities include foreign influence.
“Don’t blame China for any further damage to Canada-China relations,” Mr. Gao said. “I only see very dark deterioration of the bilateral relationship if Meng Wanzhou is handed over to the United States.”
Mr. Trudeau was asked at his daily news conference Tuesday whether he had concerns about possible retaliation from China if the B.C. court decision does not go in Ms. Meng’s favour.
“One of the good things about having a truly independent justice system is that we don’t need to apologize for or explain the decisions taken by our independent justice system. We have confidence in that system, in its independence and we, of course, will continue to abide and defend our system,” Mr. Trudeau said.
U.S. prosecutors have accused Ms. Meng of fraud related to violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Lawyers with Canada’s Department of Justice argued in a January hearing that Ms. Meng lied to a bank, an act that amounts to fraud under Canadian law. Her lawyers argued that her alleged conduct was not fraudulent and that any violation of U.S. sanctions is not a violation of law in Canada, which has not imposed the same sanctions against Iran.
In China, meanwhile, officials and scholars alike have dismissed the idea that the Canadian judiciary is independent, insisting that Ms. Meng is the victim of political persecution and that Canada is an accomplice in a U.S. campaign against Huawei, a Shenzhen-based company that is important to Beijing’s plans to elevate its global technological power.
For the Canadian court to release Ms. Meng would “be an indication that Canada cares about its relationship with China,” said Liu Dan, a researcher with the Centre for Canadian Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. “It’s definitely the result that would be in line with China’s hopes.”
Ms. Meng, who has not spoken publicly since her arrest, has indicated that she is feeling confident ahead of the court decision this week. On Saturday, she and other Huawei employees – including senior executives with the company – posed for photographs giving the thumbs up outside the B.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, CBC reported Monday.
Huawei declined to comment.
In China, however, users of the Twitter-like Weibo service expressed pessimism about Ms. Meng’s chances. More than 8,000 voted in an online poll conducted by the Communist Party’s powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. Just 15 per cent said they were optimistic about how the B.C. court will rule.
With reporting by Alexandra Li and a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.