VANCOUVER—A common narrative has emerged this month: Canada being caught between two global superpowers vying for dominance.
The notion has been used to frame the detentions of two Canadians in China, an apparent response to Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of authorities in the United States.
But experts say this explanation obscures a larger truth: that China’s detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are part of an ongoing bid to assert its authoritarian “rule by law” system against the democratic rule-of-law order of the Western world.
Kovrig, an ex-diplomat, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were arrested in China a little more than a week after Meng, a top executive of Chinese telecommunications and tech giant Huawei, was taken into Canadian custody.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has issued a formal call for the release of the pair of detainees, while the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany and most recently Australia have all issued statements of concern over the apparent political motivations of the pair’s arrests.
The issue runs far deeper than an effort by one country to use detention of foreign nationals to push for the release of its own citizens, said Charles Burton, associate professor of political science at Brock University.
Repeated assertions from Chinese state officials that Meng’s treatment in Canada is motivated purely by political allegiance to the United States has another function, said Burton. Suggesting Meng’s arrest is equivalent to — or worse than — China’s handling of Spavor and Kovrig is the latest chapter in a Chinese government effort to undermine long-standing democratic norms and legitimize its own brand of state-directed justice, he argued.
“The Chinese government denies the reality of judicial independence in Western liberal democracies by insisting that (the current conflict over Kovrig and Spavor) is a political matter and can be resolved by the Canadian prime minister if enough pressure is exerted,” Burton said in a phone interview.
The Chinese regime, he said, wishes to establish a “moral equivalence” between the Chinese and Canadian justice systems.
“And frankly that’s ridiculous, because our system is based on the rule of law and their system is based on rule-by-law, which is that the Chinese Communist Party enforces its political decisions through the use of administrative law.”
Chinese authorities have said Kovrig and Spavor are not under arrest but rather are being held for interrogation in an undisclosed location, effectively allowing them to circumvent international protocols around due process, said Burton.
These “undisclosed locations,” he added, are sometimes called “black jails” — secret, extrajudicial detention centres that the Chinese government has denied exist but Human Rights Watch has documented for nearly a decade.
Recently, reports emerged that Kovrig had been denied access to a lawyer and was being kept in a continuously lit cell — a common tactic, according to Burton, used by the Chinese Ministry of State Security along with sensory deprivation and the confinement of prisoners to painful and restrictive “tiger chairs” when those detained are alleged to have threatened Chinese state security through espionage or sabotage.
Nor has any charge been laid against Kovrig or Spavor, Burton added, meaning no legal defence can be mounted on either man’s behalf.
Meng, on the other hand, was allowed to mount a strong defence against serious charges and was granted bail to her family’s home in Vancouver pending an extradition hearing.
“So the idea that Ms. Meng is worse off than the two Canadians who’ve been taken in just is not convincing to anyone who looks into it with any degree of objectivity,” he said, calling claims of equivalency between the Chinese and Canadian justice systems “patently absurd.”
This rhetoric is also a departure from nearly two decades of Beijing gesturing toward an adoption of international norms, Burton added.
In 1998, for instance, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with the idea the country would eventually move to ratification — a development that would have significant implications for the possibility of strengthening Western-style democracy in China.
“As the years went by … the Chinese Communist Party recognized that if they moved to implement the principles of the (covenant) that could lead to the end of communist rule in China, similar to what happened in Taiwan with their authoritarian government that’s now a democracy,” Burton said.
More recently, actions by the Chinese politburo have explicitly enhanced state participation in the judiciary, meaning the Chinese legal system will now become an even more tightly controlled organ of state — a status which stands in stark contrast to the independence of justice systems in Western democracies.
The projection of Chinese military power in the South China Sea in recent years is another example of the country’s flouting of international rule of law. The Chinese “reclamation” of the disputed region — which included destructive build-outs of man-made islands on reefs — was rejected by an international tribunal that found the country’s actions had violated the maritime rights of the Philippines.
The ruling — seen internationally as a landmark declaration on one of the world’s most contested areas — was swiftly rejected by China, which continues to maintain a constant presence in the region.
Beijing’s only occasional adherence to established liberal democratic norms can be traced back to what can be seen as its national myth, according to Howard W. French, journalism professor at Columbia University and author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.
Like every nation state, China maintains a national myth to legitimize and underpin the priorities and perspectives of the state, French said. And like every national myth, China’s contains both some truth and some fiction that rings true.
The important fiction in China’s national myth, French said, is the story of China’s “century of humiliation” and victimhood at the hands of imperial Western powers, which, he added, does in some ways reflect the historical victimization of China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“This business about having been a victim, of having suffered at the hands of imperial powers, is coupled with another idea, which is that the rules of the world were created by Western nations at a time when China was excluded from the system and China had no say in anything,” French said.
When international rules work for China’s longer or short-term goals, they are framed by China as legitimate, he argued. But when those rules work against governmental ends, mythology can be invoked “to derive a reason not to pay attention to (the rules) or even to undermine the logic” of that order, giving China the ability to play both insider or outsider depending on the needs of the moment, he added.
But striking this contradictory balance can be a challenge, French noted.
“The Chinese party and state have to signal to their people that they’re strong … and signalling to their people that they’re strong while also opportunistically drawing upon notions of victimhood is a tricky game,” he said.
“So this is a public-relations game that China is playing … both victim to illegitimate rules but also feeling a need to say, ‘We’re tough and we’re big now and we’re not going to let ourselves be pushed around by these pernicious westerners.’”
And that would make a country like Canada a perfect target for the exercise of Chinese governmental authority as it seeks to both flex its substantial economic and political muscle and declare its historical victimhood to long-standing imperial powers, in this case the United States.
“This could be any kind of small to medium-sized country that runs afoul of China right now that’s going to find itself in a situation like (Canada), whether or not the United States is involved,” he said.
And according to Burton, the desired outcome appears to be a push for broader, international legitimization of Chinese rule-by-law.
“I think (China’s political detention of Canadians) is reflective of their overall trend to assert that their system is suited to Chinese history and culture and has the same moral authority as the democratic system,” he said.
Yet at the heart of this entire conflict is the lives of human beings, which, according to Pamela Kilvadi, a longtime friend of Kovrig, are being used as “pawns” by countries looking to assert their dominance.
Kilvadi, director of the Boston, Mass.-based global policy research firm International Policy Fellowships Network, met Kovrig in Budapest in the 1990s during his days as journalist.
“It seems fairly clear that he’s being used as a political pawn in an international game, and he’s probably also being used an example for those who may be working in civil society organizations or journalists working in international settings that they should be wary of speaking out and wary of working abroad.”
But Kilvadi also said Kovrig is a loyal friend with an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. He’d stayed past the end of his diplomatic contract in China because he loved the country and wished to contribute to peace in the region, she said.
“It’s a tragedy when people who are really trying to forge peace are targeted in these kinds of political games,” she said.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer