In a move experts say is egregious yet unsurprising, a well-known Chinese state-controlled media outlet says the country did not use hostage diplomacy to secure the return of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou Friday.
A Sunday report from the Global Times claims recently freed Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor confessed and repented for acts of espionage “in their own handwriting,” were granted bail “for medical reasons” and were only coincidentally released in concert with Meng.
The report, citing an unnamed source “close to the matter,” claimed the Michaels must now “strictly abide” bail conditions imposed on them, which, should they be violated, would see China resume criminal proceedings.
“What’s bizarre about it is that their conditions for release match Meng’s exactly, almost word for word,” said Stephanie Carvin, associate professor of international relations at Carleton University.
As part of the plea deal that led to her release, Meng had to admit wrongdoing, confirming the U.S. case against her was factual, and that if she were to say or imply otherwise, it would result in her prosecution.
The Global Times insisted the Michaels’ arrests were legitimate and unrelated to Meng’s, who was herself a “political hostage” according to “mounting evidence.”
“It’s blatantly obvious either Beijing didn’t anticipate the extent to which the entire international community would recognize this as a hostage swap or they’re just very comfortable issuing very thin denials,” said Carvin. “It feels like international gaslighting.”
Clive Ansley, a former China-based lawyer, now a B.C.-based legal consultant on Chinese law, said the report is a good example of how the Chinese government has “created a state that is fundamentally built on a system of institutionalized lying.”
“It was apparent to everyone from the beginning that their arrests weren’t coincidental, that it was strictly a tit-for-tat reprisal and clearly hostage diplomacy,” said Ansley. “Now, at the other end of it, Meng’s release from her detention in Vancouver was followed immediately with the release of the two Michaels — to claim the two are unrelated is an insult.”
Experts told the Star they are unsure of the veracity of the claims the Michaels signed attestations of criminal wrongdoing. It may well have happened, they said, but likely under duress.
“There’s no question in my mind that if they confessed to anything, it was a result of coercion,” said Ansley. “People who have spent time in Chinese prisons will argue vociferously that being imprisoned in China is in itself a form of torture.”
While Meng spent the last three years under house arrest in Vancouver, first in a $5-million, six-bedroom home, then a $14-million residence more than three times larger, the Michaels were kept in jail cells three metres by three metres in size.
Kovrig described his living conditions as “Hell.” The lights were kept on 24 hours a day, and his diet was at times restricted to rice and boiled vegetables.
The Global Times article writes the Michaels were arrested “in accordance with the laws” and their “legal right to defense and other litigation rights are fully protected.” University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes is quick to point out the legal system in China cannot claim to operate fairly.
“The one thing I learned from my 15-year research partnership with Beijing University is that there is no such thing as an independent judiciary in China,” said Mendes. “Judges in most Chinese courts are subservient to the local Communist Party committees, who basically tell them how to decide cases. By China’s own admission, the conviction rate of anyone charged with a crime there is 99 per cent. That tells you that anything that comes out of criminal courts in China is a fabrication.”
Unlike Kovrig, who had not been sentenced yet, Spavor was given 11 years in prison for espionage in August. He was said to have taken photos and videos of Chinese military equipment “on multiple occasions” and “illegally provided some of those photos to people outside China,” according to the Global Times. The outlet qualifies the footage Spavor allegedly took as only “second-tier” state secrets.
Carvin said the charges the Michaels faced were hardly believable, particularly in the case of Spavor, who, unlike Kovrig, only ever worked in the private sector.
“The idea that they were involved in espionage is such a ridiculous proposition,” she said. “The idea that Canada, which doesn’t have a human intelligence agency, would use (Spavor) a tourism guide to take pictures of military equipment that China puts on parade is somehow breaking the law, or constitutes espionage, is as boldfaced of a lie as you can possibly get. And on top of that, in the same breath, they said, ‘Oh, but the pictures he got weren’t that bad, nothing was really compromised.’ It just beggars belief.”
Why then, if the international community is so widely skeptical of China’s official stance on the imprisonment of the Michaels, would the country continue to push the narrative that they were spies whose arrests had no correlation with Meng’s?
Carvin said the Global Times, and by extension the Chinese government, is primarily writing for its domestic audience, which has been inundated with stories of Meng’s innocence, but it is also providing an official international response.
“You always have to assume the primary audience for this material is domestic,” she said. “If you recall, during Meng’s trial they had fake protestors show up holding up signs saying, ‘Free Meng.’ That was for the Chinese audience. Everyone in the West saw through that in about six seconds.”
“The propaganda machine is mainly trying to convince their own people,” he said. “The reality is out in government and legal circles internationally. What’s really sad about this whole thing is that it is essentially promoting China’s abysmal breaching of the rules through kidnapping or ‘hostage diplomacy.’ ”