Two Canadians incarcerated in China can definitely do with some Christmas cheer this month, more than two years after they were seized, seemingly in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, in response to a United States request for extradition on bank fraud charges.
The Chinese government has denied any connection between the two cases, even though its officials have hinted broadly that the two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — could well be released if Canada allowed Meng to return home. China stands guilty in the eyes of many of the heinous offense of hostage diplomacy.
On Dec. 10, 2018, the two Michaels were detained in China and charged with national security offenses. They were held in solitary confinement and subjected to intense high-pressure questioning. Meng, who owns several properties in Canada, was able to live in her $15 million Vancouver mansion and, though tagged electronically, was free to travel around the city.
The difference in treatment Meng and the two Michaels have received is staggering. And yet, of course, both governments are acting according to their respective laws.
China likes to say that it does everything according to law. Thus, people are arrested, questioned, tried and imprisoned according to law. But its law is clearly quite different from law in other countries.
One example of the way in which Chinese law is used is the way it dealt with another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg. He was involved in a narcotics offense and was tried, convicted and given a 15-year sentence before Meng was arrested Dec. 1, 2018.
However, shortly after Canada arrested Meng, China decided to retry Schellenberg. And in the retrial, the Canadian was sentenced to death. Of course, everything was done according to law, Chinese law.
On Dec. 10, 2019, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was asked why, a year after the detention of the two Michaels, “They have reportedly no access to families or lawyers.”
The answer was obfuscation. “We have repeatedly provided information on the two Canadian citizens upon request,” Hua Chunying responded. “China’s judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law and protect the two Canadian citizens’ lawful rights.”
Not a word was said about access to families or lawyers.
Pressed specifically whether the two Canadians had been allowed to see lawyers and family members, Hua replied: “China’s judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law.” She never answered the question.
Her nonanswer raises the question: What are the “lawful rights” supposedly protected by Chinese law? Why won’t the government spokesman spell them out?
This policy of hiding behind a smokescreen of supposed legal rights was on view again little more than a week ago when Haze Fan, a Chinese citizen working for Bloomberg, was arrested on national security charges.
Again, the Chinese foreign ministry offered assurances that “the Chinese government protects citizens’ freedom of speech according to law.” Unfortunately, such supposed legal protections don’t seem to amount to much in China.
Hostage diplomacy may be a relatively new term, but it is certainly not a new practice for China.
More than 50 years ago, British journalist Anthony Grey was imprisoned in Beijing from 1967 to 1969. The Reuters correspondent recounted his experience in the book “Hostage in Peking,” where he described how touched he was when he learned after his release that several thousand people had sent him Christmas cards while he was under arrest.
This has inspired Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and a friend of Kovrig, to organize a campaign to send Christmas cards to the two Canadians via Chinese embassies. As he told Voice of America in an interview from London: “I suddenly thought a contemporary version to that would be to send the Christmas card, but make sure that before you send it to the Chinese Embassy, that you put it online, with whatever social media you wish, under the hashtag FreeChinaHostages, so that lots of people can see it.”
This way, Chinese embassies around the world would learn how much support these Canadians have. If the cards actually reach their hands, it will no doubt provide them with some Christmas solace.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world can show that they care about the way people are treated by China.
Hopefully, the buildup of publicity of people sending Christmas cards to the imprisoned Canadians will put moral pressure on China, causing it to abandon the repugnant, uncivilized and inhuman practice of hostage diplomacy. And that would certainly be worth celebrating, this Christmas and every one after it.
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.
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