For two years, the Canadian men have been held in separate prisons in northern China, largely cut off from the rest of the world. They have been accused of espionage, without evidence, and forced to go months without visits from diplomats. They have waited as their cases have meandered through China’s opaque legal system, despite calls around the world for their release.

The men — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur — were once relatively low-profile expatriates working in Asia. They have now become symbols of the consequences of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, their fates seemingly intertwined with the future of China’s tumultuous relationships with Canada and the United States.

China has made clear that it remains angered by Canada’s decision in December 2018 to detain Meng Wanzhou, a prominent Chinese technology executive, at the request of American prosecutors. The detentions of Kovrig and Spavor shortly thereafter — two years ago on Thursday — were widely perceived as retribution.

The fates of all three are being watched as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House next month. In Canada, some experts and officials are hopeful that U.S.-China relations might improve under the Biden administration, perhaps smoothing the way for the release of Kovrig and Spavor. Others are less optimistic that the world’s two largest economies can easily resolve their disputes, the Meng case being just one of many.

The United States has accused Meng, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, of sweeping fraud charges and sought her extradition. But while Kovrig and Spavor continue to be held in harsh conditions, she has been granted bail in a seven-bedroom mansion in Vancouver.

Kovrig, who worked for a nonprofit organization, has been confined to a small jail cell in Beijing and was subjected to repeated interrogations early in his detention. During his incarceration, his diet has, at times, been restricted to rice and boiled vegetables, he told his family.

The Chinese authorities have kept Kovrig so isolated that he was not aware of the details of the coronavirus pandemic until October, his wife, Vina Nadjibulla said, when Canadian diplomats informed him during a virtual visit.

“He is remarkably resilient, but his situation is difficult to endure,” Nadjibulla said in an interview. “We worry about the toll this is having on his mental health.”

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, returns to the B.C. Supreme Court with her husband, Liu Xiaozong, following a break from her hearing in Vancouver on Wednesday. | THE CANADIAN PRESS / VIA AP
Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, returns to the B.C. Supreme Court with her husband, Liu Xiaozong, following a break from her hearing in Vancouver on Wednesday. | THE CANADIAN PRESS / VIA AP

Spavor, a business owner who promoted cultural trips to North Korea, is being held in the Chinese city of Dandong, near the North Korean border. Less is known about his condition; his relatives have declined to speak with the news media.

“It’s been a nightmare for those who know him and love him,” said Jacco Zwetsloot, a friend of Spavor who lives in South Korea.

Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, on Tuesday told a special parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations that he recently spoke with the two imprisoned Canadians by video and confirmed their health and well-being.

The harsh treatment of Kovrig and Spavor reflects the strongman foreign policy of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping. The Chinese government has steadily escalated the crisis, accusing Kovrig and Spavor of endangering state security and indicting them in June on espionage charges. The two men now face the possibility of a trial in Chinese courts, which are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Xi has sought to project a new era of strength for China and to demonstrate that he will not bow to the demands of Western nations. He is locked in a tit-for-tat battle with the Trump administration, which in recent months has imposed restrictions on Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, and penalized top Chinese officials for human rights abuses, among other measures.

By continuing to hold the two Canadians, Xi is “casting aside politesse in favor of a frontal assault on any country and person that dares to confront China,” said Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

In Canada, where the detentions of the “Two Michaels” have been front-page news for months, the crisis has stoked widespread anger and underscored the country’s impotence in the face of a rising superpower. Relations between Canada and China have further eroded this year because of Beijing’s early efforts to conceal the coronavirus outbreak and its continuing crackdown on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, has repeatedly criticized China’s handling of the case and demanded the release of Kovrig and Spavor.

“We’re going to continue to work as hard as we possibly can to bring these two Michaels home,” Trudeau said this month.

Some former Canadian parliamentarians and diplomats as well as legal experts have argued that Canada’s justice minister should intervene to free Meng, saying that could clear the way for the release of Kovrig and Spavor. But Trudeau has rejected such a move, saying it would undermine the independence of Canadian courts and encourage China or other countries to arbitrarily arrest Canadians.

A small group of protesters gathers outside the B.C. Supreme Court while Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou attends a hearing in Vancouver on Monday. | THE CANADIAN PRESS / VIA AP
A small group of protesters gathers outside the B.C. Supreme Court while Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou attends a hearing in Vancouver on Monday. | THE CANADIAN PRESS / VIA AP

For friends and relatives of Kovrig and Spavor, the uncertainty has been trying. They have in recent days organized a campaign asking people to mail Christmas cards for the two men to Chinese embassies around the world, hoping to continue to put pressure on Beijing.

Nadjibulla, the wife of Kovrig, said he was passing the time by exercising in his cell and reading letters from family. He has also found solace in books like Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

While Kovrig and Spavor have been afforded minimal contact with the outside world, Meng has encountered few such restrictions. She has been free to take private painting lessons, go shopping and, before the pandemic, was able to attend concerts by Chinese singers, though she wears a GPS tracker.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Beijing was not acting in good faith.

“Every step in the legal process against Ms. Meng is mirrored by a fake Chinese process during which China is retaliating,” Mulroney said. “Meng is a princess in their system — and they are saying: ‘How dare Canada hold her? And we will take a few pawns as ransom for her.’”

China has denied that the Canadians were detained arbitrarily.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said this month that Canadian officials were “distorting the facts” by suggesting that the two men were innocent. She called on Canada to release Meng, saying the Canadian government was acting as an “accomplice” to U.S. efforts to suppress the rise of Chinese technology companies.

The Communist Party has a history of holding foreigners on spurious charges as a way to extract concessions from companies and governments overseas. And while officials have denied that China takes part in “hostage diplomacy,” some analysts have hinted that the fates of Kovrig and Spavor might be linked to that of Meng.

Wu Xinbo, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said he believed the charges against Kovrig and Spavor were legitimate. But he said the Chinese government might be more lenient if Canada moved to release Meng.

“If Canada handles it well, then the rest might be more flexible,” Wu said.

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