VANCOUVER—Thirteen Canadians have been detained in China since tech executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, according to Global Affairs Canada.
Eight of those people, including McIver, have been returned to Canada since their arrests, said Global Affairs spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé in a statement. Of the eight Canadians that have been returned, only McIver was named.
Meng, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, was released on $10-million bail to her family’s Vancouver home on Dec. 11 to await proceedings for extradition to the United States.
But Kovrig, Spavor and three others not named in Bérubé’s statement still remain in custody at undisclosed locations in China. Kovrig is being kept in a continuously lit room and is being questioned several times daily by Chinese authorities, according to International Crisis Group (ICG), Kovrig’s former employer.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in December both Kovrig and Spavor are “suspected of engaging in activities endangering national security,” though neither have been formally charged, precluding them from being able to mount any kind of legal defence.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called their detentions “arbitrary” in a statement submitted Thursday to the Star.
China’s top prosecutor Zhang Jun said in a statement on Thursday that there is “no doubt” Kovrig and Spavor broke China’s laws, adding that the two Canadians are still under investigation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said “it is not convenient to disclose more information now.”
Experts have voiced concerns about the likelihood of due process being granted to Kovrig and Spavor, arguing that Beijing courts are little more than an instrument of the state.
Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, believes the primary motivation behind the men’s detentions is political. Saint-Jacques served as ambassador between 2012 and 2016, when Kovrig also worked for the embassy.
“I think the expectation of the Chinese side is to continue to put pressure on us so at some point we’ll just say … ‘Ms. Meng will be allowed to go back to China,’” he said in a December interview.
“I’m pretty sure if this were to happen, the two Michaels would be deported shortly afterwards.”
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said Tuesday he was “totally confident” Kovrig’s detention was motivated purely by politics. Neither Kovrig nor ICG pose any kind of threat to China’s national security, he said. Evans had served as chief executive of the ICG.
Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, called ICG “an impartial international organization that has impeccable credentials for being even-handed in its treatment of nations and their interests.”
“The International Crisis Group is not in any way an anti-China or pro-U.S. organization,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s internationally … respected. In other words, you would think it’s in China’s interests to be reasonable in its treatment of that organization and its staff.”
And Robert Malley, ICG’s president and a former member of the U.S. National Security Council under president Barack Obama, said Thursday that China’s actions advance no “purpose other than the purpose of further raising doubts about China’s reliability as a country that’s going to follow the rule of law.”
Former ambassador Saint-Jacques argued that if the two Canadians are formally charged, they will be as good as guilty.
“In the Chinese system, they can detain you and go through this interrogation phase, and it’s at the end of that that they decide whether they will formally arrest you and formally charge you,” he said. “And if they do that, 99.9 per cent of the time you’re found guilty.”
Beijing has continued to emphasize the legitimacy of its legal process.
“China’s competent authorities took compulsory measures in accordance with the law against the Canadian citizens … because they engaged in activities undermining China’s national security,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a Dec. 24 press briefing, urging international authorities to respect China’s “judicial sovereignty.”
“The relevant departments in China have ensured (the detainees’) legitimate rights and interests in accordance with the law and offered necessary assistance to the Canadian side to fulfill their consular duties.”
Charles Burton, associate professor of political science at Brock University, suggested the messaging may be partly intended to assuage local anxieties around the independence of the Chinese judiciary.
“China’s domestic audience … have a lot of reservations about the nature of Chinese state power and the lack of justice in the courts, because the courts are under the direction … of the Chinese Communist Party,” Burton said.
The Chinese legal system, he added, provides “no entitlement to human rights or fair due process.”
The idea of a truly independent judiciary is one Chinese authorities do not wish to promote in China, he said, which is reflected in Beijing’s repeated characterizations of the Canadian legal process as illegal, illegitimate and unreasonable.
And last week, the Chinese government issued decisions of the Politburo Standing Committee calling for an enhanced role of the party in the judicial process, which Burton said underscores how the Chinese courts are an organ of state power.
“The Chinese Communist Party enforces its political decisions through the use of administrative law,” he said.
Canadian senators who plan to travel to China this weekend told reporters they will use the trip to advocate for the release of the two men.
With files from Alex Ballingall and The Canadian Press
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer