The requests are handwritten on a sheet of unlined paper, a compendium of simple needs that delineate the contours of a Chinese detention centre, where each element of daily life – study, sleep, sanity – is a struggle.
First on Michael Spavor’s wish list: a new terry cloth headband and wristbands. “Any color is good, surprise me :),” he writes in a note.
The smiley face suggests good humour, and the letter – which also asks for books on language, history and religious philosophy – suggests a mind that remains active and engaged as Mr. Spavor’s time in detention lengthens with no clear end date.
But the note also gives shape to his life in a system that, former detainees in China say, is designed to destroy hope and exact punishment on the incarcerated – even those whose guilt has not yet been determined by a court.
Mr. Spavor, who ran a business connecting people with North Korea, and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat working as a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, were seized by Chinese agents two years ago, on Dec. 10, 2018. It was not until this June that the men were formally charged with espionage, although China has not disclosed any evidence against them.
As targets of what critics call hostage diplomacy, they are being held in separate facilities – Mr. Kovrig in Beijing and Mr. Spavor in Dandong, the Chinese city on the North Korean border where he was living before he disappeared. For two years, neither man has been able to communicate freely, restricted to consular visits, meetings with lawyers and a single 15-minute call between Mr. Kovrig and an ill family member.
Now, The Globe and Mail has obtained new details from consular reports, interviews and correspondence written by the two men that help shed some light on their detention in China. They are being held in conditions far different than the multimillion-dollar home where Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive whose arrest at Vancouver’s airport preceded the seizure of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, is living while out on bail in British Columbia.
When the two men entered their current detention facilities, it’s likely they had nothing except the clothes on their backs, said Peter Humphrey, a British man imprisoned in China in 2013 after being accused of illegally selling personal data belonging to Chinese nationals. He was released in 2015.
“Any valuables will be taken away. Any hard shoes will be taken away. Any metal in clothing will be taken away. Zippers in trousers will be removed,” he said. “So you really are thrown into a cell in the dead of night and you are very threadbare.”
In Mr. Spavor’s letter, he describes in detail the items he needs, beginning with clothing. In addition to the headband and wristbands, he wants shorts – “quick drying, simple, comfortable,” stipulating that they not be “white or light colors, dark is better, durable is good too. With pockets, NO zippers!” He also asks for quick-drying T-shirts.
In messages sent through consular officials over the past two years, Mr. Spavor said he was losing weight and adding muscle, becoming the fittest he has been in a long time.
Managing workout clothes, however, can be difficult.
Detainees in China must hand wash their own laundry, typically with cold water, but in winter at the Dandong facility, clothes are dried on sheets of newspaper under their cots, said Kevin Garratt, another Canadian once detained in Dandong amid a spat between Ottawa and Beijing. Clothes that dry quickly are less susceptible to mould or odour. Tougher still are sheets and other bedding, which must also be washed by detainees using a single sink shared by everyone in the cell.
Darker clothing is highly valued, said Mr. Garratt, who spent 19 months behind bars before his release in 2016, “just because things get dirty and you can’t get them clean.”
In his letter, Mr. Spavor also asks for a new sleep mask, saying it should be durable because he uses it “2-3 times a day” – an indication that he is kept under 24-hour lighting.
When Mr. Garratt was held there, detainees were permitted to nap at lunch, but not allowed to use blankets, which could only be unrolled at night. Guards issued other seemingly arbitrary edicts, too. At one point, they banned exercise. Shaving was outlawed, leading people to sneak outside with shavers to a spot not in view of cameras. Before the Lunar New Year, they proscribed red underwear “because red is a sign of good luck, and no one could have good luck in prison,” Mr. Garratt said. For Mr. Kovrig, a skilled analyst and writer, guards have allowed pen and paper for only a few hours a month.
“They just want to demoralize you,” Mr. Garratt said. “They’re in total control. They want to make you feel like everything is hopeless.”
Other detainees were allowed to send requests to lawyers or family members by telephone. Mr. Garratt was not granted that privilege, but listened as prison officials announced, on a loudspeaker, the results of those calls to the entire prison population. He recalled people being told their family had said, “We don’t know you.”
Mr. Spavor’s request list is heavy with books, specifying exact titles of Chinese study guides – “I need all the practice I can get,” he writes – as well as volumes on amazing stories and language, vocabulary and writing guidebooks.
He also asks for titles on fundraising, attracting capital for venture projects, entrepreneurialism and startups. “It indicates someone using his time to think about the future, business ideas, life after prison,” said Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human-rights advocate who was briefly incarcerated in China in 2016. That’s “a very good way to focus your mind and to be productive.”
For Mr. Kovrig, solace has come from adherence to routine. He walks 7,000 steps a day in a cell that measures three metres by three metres, said Vina Nadjibulla, who is married to Mr. Kovrig and has been an advocate for his release, although the two are separated.
He exercises regularly, doing strength training, planking and yoga poses. He meditates daily and begins each morning by reciting gratitude mantras. He sings, too, including songs from favourite artists such as the Sisters of Mercy and Leonard Cohen.
He is “attempting to do everything possible to maintain mental health and discipline and create a sense of agency in an environment with an extreme lack of freedom,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.
Although he is allowed two hours of movies each day, much of his day is devoted to books. His correspondence to family members is layered with philosophical quotes that underscore a sense of determination. One comes from Seneca: “The thing that matters is not what you bear, but how you bear it.” Another from Nietzsche: “Philosophy is really homesickness: the wish to be everywhere at home.” Still another from the Apostle Paul: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.”
In one letter, he added his own observation: “A blank cell confronts me with the limits of my own imagination, but I do what I can to cultivate virtuous thoughts. My dreams are far more creative than my waking thoughts.”
There are hints that Mr. Spavor, too, is grappling with deeper questions. He asks for books by Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti, who advocates meditation as “the understanding of life, which is to bring about order. Order is virtue.” Mr. Spavor has also requested Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning – and Korean comics.
And notes from consular visits indicate a sense of humour that has remained intact. Mr. Spavor called his initial location, an interrogation unit run by state security, the “Shenyang Sheraton” and cracked wise about being on “extended sabbatical.” He also joked about being consoled by reading books about the terrible prison experiences endured by others.
On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement: “These years have been stolen from Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, their families and loved ones.
“I am struck by the integrity and strength of character the two have shown as they endure immense hardship that would shake anyone’s faith in humanity.
“Both Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are incredible examples of perseverance and determination in the face of the most difficult circumstances. I know they draw enormous strength from their families, who have been steadfast in pressing for a resolution to this untenable situation.”
Former detainees say one of the chief difficulties in the Chinese system, however, is the uncertainty it imposes. Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig could be put on trial at any time – the system specifies three days notice – or could continue to linger without a court appearance.
“This is a huge psychological burden and point of duress – not knowing when your trial date will be,” Mr. Humphrey said. “To keep the prisoner in that state of mind is actually a deliberate part of China’s systematic crushing of the human spirit in this detention system.”
A family’s prayer
Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention for 1,000 days since being detained in December 2018, and has been even more isolated since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. In June 2020, The Globe spoke with his wife Vina Nadjibulla, who is spearheading efforts to have Mr. Kovrig released and returned to Canada. Note: This video has been updated with the latest milestone of 1,000 days in detention.
The Globe and Mail
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.