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Meng Wanzhou, seen here Oct. 2, 2014, was little known in China before her arrest.STRINGER/Reuters

Before she became the central figure in a fractious international dispute, Meng Wanzhou was little known in her home country. She received scant mention in a domestic media establishment that lionizes business icons. She was largely absent from social media. Even among the country’s elite, she was not considered one of the true heirs to Communist Party power and fortune.

But the Vancouver arrest of Ms. Meng in December has suddenly elevated the Huawei executive to a place of singular importance to the Chinese state, a woman who has become for Beijing an embodiment both of Chinese ambition and insecurity.

“China is protecting Meng Wanzhou as if it was defending the core of the country,” said Bao Tong, a former top Communist Party official who, though he was long ago turfed from the Chinese leadership, remains a keen observer of its work.

Ms. Meng “is no longer just a person. It seems that she has in a way become the entire country – making her interests equal to those of the nation.”

And Canada, as a consequence, has become the object of a Chinese pique more acute than that directed at other countries with whom Beijing has feuded in other years. Since Ms. Meng’s arrest, two Canadians have been detained on allegations of endangering Chinese national security, while a third has been sentenced to death, barring appeal, after an unusually speedy retrial on drug-smuggling charges.

Ms. Meng has become a potent flash point, drawing Canada into a worsening conflict between China and the United States over Beijing’s attempts to assure the world’s second-largest economy – and its companies and political philosophies – global pride of place. Telecommunications company Huawei is a critical element in that ambition, a key pillar in China’s determination “to win the commanding heights of the 21st-century economy,” as U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence put it in a landmark speech – an address delivered last October to demonstrate Washington’s hardening resolve to confront China.

Less than two months later, Ms. Meng was arrested in Vancouver, in the midst of an open campaign by the U.S. and allied intelligence agencies to block the installation of Huawei’s fifth-generation cellular technology.

The U.S. Justice Department has sought Ms. Meng’s extradition on fraud charges related to the violation of Iran sanctions.

For Beijing, however, what happens to Ms. Meng has a bearing on the kind of future available to Chinese companies and Chinese people around the world. The case against her amounts to “technological bullying,“ Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this week.

“The real motive of the U.S. side is clear for all to see – leaving no stones unturned in containing China’s high-tech companies and depriving China of its legitimate development rights.”

Indeed, “from the Chinese perspective, they think the whole thing is a conspiracy against China. It’s a national humiliation,” said Cheng Li, a specialist in elite Chinese politics who is director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

China’s leadership sees no choice but to mount a “very, very firm” response, he said. “Because they cannot risk being seen as soft in this crucial area.”

The Chinese fury directed at Canada, he believes, is only the opening act of a “major crisis” that “could lead to major confrontation in many different areas,” including with the United States.

The idea that Western forces are conspiring against China is no fringe theory. In late 2017, Li Zhanshu, a member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee that stands atop the Chinese political system, penned a lengthy article for the People’s Daily, which was later republished in Qiushi, the Communist Party of China’s journal.

“China is at the crucial stage of its transformation from being a large country to becoming a strong one, and this transformation increasingly brings with it the phenomenon whereby success invites detraction,” he wrote. He called it “a major issue that we need to face.“

In the arrest of Ms. Meng – and its argument that this is a political action taken to undermine China – Beijing has a clear way to do so.

“Meng’s case has set an execrable precedent. Beijing’s reaction will shape the world’s understanding of China’s national strength and will,” The Global Times, a Communist Party-run newspaper with a nationalist orientation, wrote this week. “Beijing must not be furious or cowardly.”

Exacting a price from Canada is meant as a clear warning to others about the price of aligning with Washington, said Bo Zhiyue, a specialist in Chinese politics who is the director of XIPU Institution, a think tank at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

“They want to contain the threat of damage,” he said.

Though views differ, Huawei has become a national symbol for some of China’s thinkers, he said. To them, “if Huawei fails, that means China is failing.”

China’s official rhetoric has underscored how seriously it sees the issue, which the country’s foreign ministry has called “egregious in nature,” a rare critique typically reserved for matters that threaten Chinese stability or national esteem. In state media over the past 30 years, the phrase has been used to describe the theft of treasures from the Forbidden City (the thief was put to death), the fatal shooting of a police officer (the shooter was executed), a bloody terrorist attack on the Kunming train station (31 people died, and three attackers were sentenced to death) and recent incidents involving faulty vaccines and the gene-editing of human babies – both of which have become explosive national scandals.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, said this week that Chinese President Xi Jinping himself “was very angry about” Ms. Meng’s arrest “and so others in the Chinese government had taken the lead from him.”

There is an understanding among officials in China that Mr. Xi has ordered diplomats and security agents to “do whatever possible to get her back,” said Feng Chongyi, a scholar at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney, who studies contemporary Chinese history and maintains a wide network of contacts in China for his research.

For Mr. Xi, the arrest of Ms. Meng also risks sending a message to China’s elite – those who enabled his rise to power – that they are no longer safe as they travel.

“Today it’s Meng Wanzhou, tomorrow it could be someone else, including senior officials in the Chinese government. China doesn't want the Meng Wanzhou extradition to set a major precedent,” said Dali Yang, a specialist in China’s politics at the University of Chicago.

And so, “by making Canada pay a steep price, China hopes that other countries will think twice in the future about honouring their extradition-treaty obligations with the U.S.,” said Minxin Pei, a Chinese political expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Beneath that lies something larger as well. Timothy Brook, a sinologist and historian at the University of British Columbia, sees the dispute over Ms. Meng and Huawei as exposing something much larger: the Chinese ambition for a return to past eras of empire, an idea that may sit uncomfortably in modern Western capitals.

”China feels it deserves to be treated as one of the great powers,” he said. “It’s not interested so much in participating in the institutions of 20th-century governance. It wants to go back to 19th-century governance.“

That is not the official message from Beijing, which has sought to cast China as a co-operative partner. “We reject the practices of the strong bullying the weak and self-claimed supremacy,” Vice-President Wang Qishan said this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But through its actions in demanding the release of Ms. Meng, “all China is doing is putting the world on notice,” Prof. Brook said. “It’s not saying that we are ready to tolerate the processes of international law. It’s saying we’re big, we’re tough, we hold your debt and we want you to do what we say.”

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