It is a revealing sign of the times that the brutal and thuggish nature of state power is increasingly evident. In most cases, such as the assassination of Kim Young Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s top leader, the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the attempted killing of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, the government’s involvement is disguised.
It is more alarming that China is not even trying to hide the exercise of its power as Beijing persecutes individuals to send a message to governments that offend it. The detention of two Canadians working in China is a gross abuse of authority and makes abundantly clear Beijing’s intent to take hostages to extort the government in Ottawa. The pressure must be resisted and China called out for its lawlessness.
The Dec. 1 arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, at the behest of the U.S. government, has infuriated Beijing. Meng is being held for a hearing on her extradition to the United States, on charges of bank fraud. In response to that detention — in fact, Meng has been released on bail and is living at home while the extradition hearing is held — Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians living and working in China.
The first was Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat (on unpaid leave) who is working for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nongovernmental research organization that tries to identify and defuse international conflicts before they boil over. He was first held on charges of working for a group that was not properly registered in China, an administrative matter. Days later, Michael Spavor, the founder and operator of Paektu Cultural Exchange, a nongovernmental organization that facilitates sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with North Korea, was arrested. Spavor was charged with “engaging in activities that endanger the national security of China,” and the following day Kovrig’s charges were upgraded to match those of Spavor.
The charges indicate that Beijing is playing hardball and is prepared to create a diplomatic crisis if necessary. While Canada’s foreign minister, Crystia Freeland, said that Chinese officials had not framed Kovrig’s arrest as a “reprisal,” officials and media — often an extension of the government — have warned Canada since Meng was detained of the potential for retaliation if she was not released. China’s ambassador to Canada wrote an opinion article in a leading Canadian newspaper in which he said that “those who accuse China of detaining some person in retaliation for the arrest of Meng should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side.” That is about as clear a confession of hostage-taking as a diplomat is going to make.
This is not the only such case. In 2014, a Canadian couple living in China were arrested as a warning to Ottawa not to extradite Su Bin, another Chinese wanted by Washington, to the U.S. (Su waived extradition and agreed to a trial in the U.S.) In 2016, members of the family of Chinese-Canadian actress Anastasia Lin were forbidden to leave China after she publicly criticized its human rights practices. And currently Beijing is holding hostage the family of Liu Changming, a bank official who fled the country in 2007 and was subsequently charged with embezzling over $1 billion, to pressure him to return. His wife and two children, all U.S. citizens, returned to China last summer to visit a sick relative. The wife was detained at a secret site shortly after their arrival; neither she nor the children can leave the country even though they have been told that they are not being investigated or charged with a crime.
This is an abuse of power — the detention of innocent individuals — to force other governments to knuckle under to China’s wishes. Still worse, it encourages other governments to respond in kind — to politicize what should be an independent judicial process — and subvert their own democracy. Remarkably, U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to take the bait: He said in an interview that “if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made … I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”
The entire world must condemn this thuggishness and denounce such hostage-taking. Japan should be especially vocal as eight of its citizens have been seized by the Chinese government and charged with espionage since 2015. There is little evidence to support the charges and the trials are a mere formality. Criminal behavior, especially when perpetrated by the state must be exposed and denounced. The world must not bend to these abuses.