VANCOUVER—The crisis in Canada-China relations deepened Thursday as Beijing ordered the formal arrest of two detained Canadians on still-unspecified national-security violations and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned China is a growing threat.
Trudeau told reporters in Paris that China is defying international norms around the world and vowed to keep enlisting international allies to protest China’s actions, in spite of Beijing’s caution against making “irresponsible” remarks.
“We continue to take the safety of the Canadians detained arbitrarily in China with the utmost priority,” Trudeau said.
“One of the things we see increasingly around the world is that the Chinese government is not following the same kinds of rules and principles that the large majority of democracies follow in regards to rules-based order, in regards to international relations,” the prime minister said.
In its latest move, the Chinese government confirmed Thursday that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been formally arrested and transferred from a shadowy “residential surveillance” centre to separate state prisons on pending charges of “secretly gathering” or “illegally providing” state secrets for “foreign forces.”
Kovrig and Spavor “are in the hands of powers far above the prosecutors who are officially assigned to their cases,” said Margaret K. Lewis, professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law, who specializes in criminal justice in mainland China.
“On the surface, the process is following the criminal procedure law. But there is no doubt that people much higher up are really calling the shots.”
Given the formal, constitutional alignment between the Chinese judiciary and state interests, it’s clear Beijing will continue to use Kovrig and Spavor as a “bargaining chip,” agreed Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad.
“There’s no question that anything to do with Spavor and Kovrig’s (possible) sentencing is not going to be based on the decision of a judge but will be dictated by a policy decision on the part of the (Chinese Communist) Party,” said Burton, an expert on Chinese domestic and international politics.
Aside from confessions made under duress, Chinese authorities will almost certainly have little evidence to support charges of espionage, he said, meaning the fate of Beijing’s foreign policy objectives may have a great deal to do with the ultimate fates of Kovrig and Spavor.
Trudeau discussed his China concerns with French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern while in Paris. And within the past week he twice spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump and once to Vice-President Mike Pence about the stakes for detained Canadians, as the U.S. and China engage in an escalating trade war and Canada becomes collateral damage.
The Trump administration has targeted Chinese tech giant Huawei in that trade war, accusing it of violating U.S. spying and banking laws. Canada complied with a U.S. request to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for extradition to face charges in one case — enraging the Chinese, who upped the ante.
But Trudeau insists he will not interfere in the Canadian court case of Meng Wanzhou even as Beijing takes a tougher stance.
His government is calling for the immediate release of Kovrig and Spavor, and thanked its allies in the cause “who have spoken in support of these detained Canadians and the rule of law.”
In a statement, it listed Australia, the EU, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain, Denmark, NATO and the G7 as supporters.
“We have to stand together to show we’re not going to change our principles and values or the way we behave, particularly when it comes to the independence of our judicial system because the Chinese government has decided to behave arbitrarily and detain Canadians,” said Trudeau in Paris.
“We will continue to make it known to China their actions are unacceptable.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday that Kovrig’s and Spavor’s arrests were “according to law.”
“They call this rule of law but it’s rule by law,” said a former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.
“Unfortunately this makes things more complicated,” he said.
Saint-Jacques said he had hoped that the U.S. and China would reach a deal that “would have included returning our two Canadians. Now that this has become a remote possibility … it’s difficult for them to punish the Americans, so it’s easier for them to come after us.”
For Kovrig and Spavor, their arrests may have a counterintuitive result: an end to the isolation, daily interrogations and sunlight deprivation suffered to date.
Before their formal arrests, the two Canadians spent over five months in “residential surveillance at a designated location” — a form of detention that can last for up to half a year, often taking place in “black jails” undisclosed to the public.
A former detainee in residential surveillance described his experience to the Star in harrowing detail in December 2018.
For three weeks in 2016, Swedish human-rights worker Peter Dahlin was held in China in a padded room, guarded by two men he wasn’t allowed to talk to, and subjected to interrogations and sleep deprivation. The sounds of guards beating other prisoners carried into his cell, and he believes guards wanted to make sure he heard the assaults.
Kovrig’s employer, foreign policy think tank International Crisis Group, confirmed Thursday he had not yet been allowed access to a lawyer or his family.
The pair’s formal arrest doesn’t mean that will change anytime soon, Lewis said. Because the men face allegations related to state security, Chinese authorities are under no legal obligation to provide them access to lawyers while the investigation continues.
Burton suggested the men’s transfer to a prison may in some ways be encouraging.
“Granted, they’re in their separate prisons, living in cells crowded with many criminals, but in terms of their conditions, they presumably will have opportunity for exercise and have opportunity for socializing with their fellow inmates,” he said.
Yet their plight is more perilous now that they are in a formalized legal process.
Once charges are laid, Lewis said, suspects in the Chinese justice system are convicted almost without exception. And depending on what they are charged with, the Canadians could face the death penalty.
She agreed a death penalty is one possible outcome but cautioned that with so many unknowns still looming it’s impossible to know what to expect.
“It’s possible theoretically that death can be applied, but there’s a huge range of possible punishments,” Lewis said. “We just don’t know enough about how the severity of the specific allegations are going to come out.”
Conservative House leader Candice Bergen targeted Trudeau in the House of Commons over the international fallout.
“Clearly, the Prime Minister’s approach to China is not working,” she said. “When will he stop acting like a coward, pick up the phone and do something about this.”
Rebuked by the Speaker, Bergen withdrew the word “coward” but the Conservatives put the blame squarely on the prime minister’s “weak” approach to China.
Former ambassador David Mulroney, in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail, called for a reset of the Canada-China relationship, and in an interview with CBC, former Canadian diplomat Ben Rowswell, of the Canadian International Council, agreed.
He said China is showing a “new and ugly face to the world” — and throwing its weight around. But he doubted a phone call from Trudeau to the Chinese president would change anything, saying that Canada instead needs to “leverage” its power with allies.
Asked at what point he would call on the Chinese president personally, Trudeau said Thursday, “We will always only do what we know can help Canadians.”
And he rejected the Conservatives’ urging to immediately ban Huawei from developing Canada’s 5G wireless networks, saying he will take the advice of Canada’s security agencies.
“This is not a political decision. It has to be a decision based on our collective understanding of how we can keep our citizens safe while at same time giving them choice and competitive technologies when they are available.”
With files from Jeremy Nuttall
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer