Since they started being widely reported at the end of 2018, I’ve sporadically been hearing and reading about the Meng Wanzhou extradition proceedings and the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in apparent retaliation to Meng’s arrest in Canada.i Through this exposure, I’ve had some misgivings about the way the cases were discussed, but I wasn’t able to really develop my thoughts about these concerns until reading an article in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s.1 In it, the author discussed the cases generally and focused on Kovrig’s family and their attempts to free him, while presenting Meng’s case as a fight pitting ideals against practicalities––the principle of due process and the importance of resisting hostage diplomacy on one side, diplomatic pragmatism and empathy on the other. In this way, the article cultivates something of an oversimplified picture––which likely comes across as an odd bit of criticism given that many important complexities of the cases are laid out in the article, but I’ll explain myself. This type of reporting can ultimately serve to politically constrain the possible outcome of Meng’s extradition case and, with it, the fates of the two Canadians.
Most of my argument relies on the public perception of the cases and how this forces decisions politically. There is a tendency within the public to absorb these types of stories in a somewhat cursory fashion, only picking up on salient points or details, and not necessarily that well. (I won’t pretend to know exactly how widespread this phenomenon is, but I know that I and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about these cases have been guilty of such a problem.)ii This pertains not only to specific facts reported, but also to the general portrayal of the cases. In this way, the conflicting principles presented in the Maclean’s article are attached to Meng’s extradition proceedings in a way that holds important implications. The author lays out the problem of whether it’s right for Canadian officials to circumvent due process in order to free two citizens, whether they owe it to their citizens or if it will unnecessarily endanger others in the process. The problem I see, much in line with most of what I’ve read and heard about this, is that these considerations are intimately attached to the decision to either extradite or intervene in Meng’s case. In the eyes of the public, when such attachments are created, extraditing Meng for whatever reason becomes seen as upholding justice, whereas halting the extradition for whatever reason becomes seen as giving in to hostage diplomacy for the sake of our citizens. Here public opinion frames an allowable outcome in the case. If the public strongly leans on the side of justice, then halting the extradition becomes politically damaging. If public opinion sways to the side of compassion, then extraditing Meng becomes similarly damaging, so long as no other path to bring the Canadians home arises. From the messaging of current government officials presented in the article, they seem to have read the public as being more strongly on the side of justice, and so have taken a firm stance of continuing the extradition proceedings at this time. The push for international solidarity to put pressure on China could be viewed as acknowledgement that there’s a sizeable enough segment of the public on the side of compassion that it can’t be neglected, though it could simply mean public officials are doing what they can for these two in the face of public pressure to resist capitulation.
With the role of public opinion in shaping government response at play, it makes sense for Kovrig’s family to speak out in an attempt to humanize him in an attempt to sway public opinion further to their favoured “side.” While doing so, however, releasing Meng is being presented to the public as the path to free the two Canadians, which serves to more strongly attach the Canadians’ fates and the principles in conflict to the outcome of Meng’s case as a result. If public opinion doesn’t budge far enough onto the side of compassion, then this unfortunately makes halting the extradition more politically dangerous, even if justice truly demands it. It doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, but it does mean that there can be increased political pressure on the justice minister to extradite.iii
An alternative tactic to attempt to get these Canadians their freedom by freeing Meng would be to at least try and detach these principles in conflict from the outcome of the proceedings. In theory, two things are likely necessary to accomplish this. First, we probably need to more often discuss the Meng case independently from Kovrig and Spavor, which can create some distance between them for the public. This can hopefully allow for a more nuanced understanding than simply either upholding the law and extraditing or bending the law in order to save our citizens. Secondly, this simplistic dichotomy needs to be challenged. The only apparent way I can envision this being done currently is by better shining the spotlight on decisions made in favour of extradition but that can be interpreted as ignoring the rule of law for political reasons, such as continuing the proceedings in spite of comments from the U.S. president implying a political motive behind the extradition request.iv If this separation can be accomplished, it gives politicians space to better justify these decisions to the public without getting voted out or forced to resign amid public backlash. And this kind of tactic can be employed along with the current attempts at humanizing the detained Canadians, as both tactics could work in concert. In this way, more of the public favouring compassion makes halting the extradition more acceptable to the public that still attaches this to the extradition outcome, while improving the public understanding that halting extradition doesn’t necessarily equate overriding justice allows the justice minister to do so while effectively justifying it to the public. On top of this, those on the side of justice should be in favour of promoting the rule of law throughout the process, because it better allows for justice free from political influence, which also means that the detachment of these conflicting principles from the outcome of the proceedings should be acceptable on both sides.
But what can we take away from everything that I’m suggesting here? Probably a few things. Am I suggesting that writers are responsible for the public’s understanding of these issues? In part, but only in that it would do writers well to understand potential ramifications of the ways they’re reporting them. Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own education on current events, so we shouldn’t place too much responsibility on the shoulders of journalists. I am suggesting that it would do well for those pushing for a sort of prisoner exchange to consider what I’m arguing to better create a space where this option is even tenable politically, but this largely hinges on both finding my analysis a bit reasonable and on feeling that there’s a good chance that Meng can go free if the courts are left to do their thing when free from outside meddling. And it also might not matter. Canadian officials could be doing everything they can to not disturb our relationship with our largest trading partner, and it could all just be a show to sell this position to the public.
My honest feeling is that the right thing to do is try as best we can to shield the extradition proceedings from political interference, but it’s plausible that it’s already too late. Hopefully decision makers can find a way to do the right thing, whether that means extraditing or not; hopefully this can involve Kovrig and Spavor finding their way home safely in the near future; hopefully we can emerge from this without too much lasting diplomatic fallout with either the U.S. or the PRC; and hopefully officials can justify everything to the public at the end of it all. Somehow, this seems like asking a lot, so we’ll see which of these remains intact as we emerge from this quagmire.
i. The most clear analysis of retaliatory nature of the cases I encountered was provided by Stephen McDonnell, the BBC’s China correspondent, immediately after Kovrig and Spavor were formally charged with spying (18 months after they were originally detained): “Though the Chinese government has not absolutely, explicitly linked the cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with Meng Wanzhou’s extradition proceedings in Vancouver, it has certainly given large dollops of nudge, nudge, wink, wink references making this connection. At the foreign ministry’s regular press briefings, the various spokespeople routinely mention the fate of the Canadians and that of the daughter of Huawei’s founder in the same response, whether they’ve been prompted to do so or not by reporters. The Communist Party’s media outlets have been more specific. Canada: if you want this former diplomat and businessman back, you know what you have to do… release Meng Wanzhou.”2
ii. With most people I’ve spoken to, there seems to be confusion about Meng’s extradition charges, with people commonly believing she’s being charged with some sort of spying. I assume at least part of the confusion stems from the fact that Huawei was charged with the stealing of trade secrets at the same time as Meng was charged with fraud, though the former charge has nothing to do with Meng’s extradition.3 In my case, I was so sure that either Kovrig or Spavor was previously convicted in PRC on drug charges but, when attempting to find information on this detail that never seemed to be reported, it became clear that I was confusing their cases with things I’d briefly read previously about Robert Schellenberg, another Canadian who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in PRC for drug trafficking, and whose case was brought back to trial shortly after Meng’s arrest, when his penalty was upgraded to a death sentence.4
iii. Top federal officials have potentially shown a willingness to encroach on the independence of the justice minister in the past, as during the SNC-Lavalin scandal, so this strikes me as a reasonable thing to anticipate at least to some degree in this instance.
iv. The argument has been put forward in the Maclean’s article and elsewhere that the political motive behind the extradition request could be used as justification to intervene. It’s explicitly listed as a reason to not grant extradition in the Canada-U.S. extradition treaty,5 so this would be reasonable if such a political motive could be proved. In this case, shortly after Meng’s arrest, then-president Trump was explicit in an interview that he would be willing to use her as a bargaining piece in a trade deal with China,6 which is at least one important point to consider in this regard. In the Maclean’s article, the justification given for the lack of intervention by Canadian officials was because there was concern that doing so could anger Trump and serve to derail NAFTA negotiations. My biggest criticism of such reporting is that it presents the detail not only as almost a passing thought that can easily be disregarded, but also with an implication that it was acceptable. Clear expression of what happened along with a change in tone on how it was reported could have made a point that should be important for both proponents of justice and of compassion more obvious to readers: that Canadian officials may have circumvented the rule of law due to entirely political motives, and not in order to halt extradition.
- Proudfoot, Shannon. “A promise to Michael.” Maclean’s, Feb 2021, pp. 26-33.
- McDonnell, Stephen. “Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor: China charges Canadians with spying.” BBC News, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-53104303. Accessed 8 Feb 2021.
- Chinese Telecommunications Conglomerate Huawei and Huawei CFO Wanzhou Meng Charged With Financial Fraud. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, 28 Jan 2019. www.justice.gov/opa/pr/chinese-telecommunications-conglomerate-huawei-and-huawei-cfo-wanzhou-meng-charged-financial. Accessed 27 May 2021.
- Wang, Yanan. “Canadian man sentenced to death in China has appeal hearing.” Global News, 9 May 2019. globalnews.ca/news/5257482/robert-schellenberg-death-sentence-appeal-hearing-china/. Accessed 27 May 2021.
- Government of Canada. “Treaty on Extradition Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America.” E101323, Can TS1976 No 3, www.treaty-accord.gc.ca/text-texte.aspx?id=101323. Accessed 10 Feb 2021.
- Mason, Jeff, and Steve Holland. “Exclusive: Trump says he could intervene in U.S. case against Huawei CFO.” Reuters, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-huawei-tech-exclusive/exclusive-trump-says-he-could-intervene-in-u-s-case-against-huawei-cfo-idUSKBN1OA2PQ. Accessed 10 Feb 2021.