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Why did China's government detain Kovrig and Spavor from among 300,000 Canadians?

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Image: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

Soon after Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver two years ago at the behest of U.S. authorities, Chinese state security officers arrested two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

It was clear from the get-go that the arrest on December 10, 2018 of the two Michaels -- as Kovrig and Spavor have come to be known in Canada where there is enormous public sympathy for their predicament -- was intended by the Chinese government as a message to the government of Canada.

Today, their plight is a cause célèbre.

Beyond that, though, the narrative is murkier.

We know why Meng was chosen for her role. As a senior executive of a huge and successful Chinese high technology company, she was an excellent catch for President Donald Trump's open plan to use her as a bargaining chip in high-stakes negotiations with China for a trade deal more to his administration's liking.

What's more, Meng was a resident of Canada and the U.S. authorities seem to have concluded, obviously correctly, that their Canadian counterparts would meekly go along with the dubious scheme to arrest her during a flight stopover for supposedly ignoring U.S. sanctions against Iran, even though Canada and other Western countries had not enacted similar sanctions.

But how were the two Michaels chosen?

After all, the Chinese authorities had more than 300,000 Canadians residing in their country to choose from, most in Hong Kong, but also in many in other centres. Most are Chinese and Canadian dual citizens -- status the Chinese government doesn't recognize.

Moreover, at the time of the two Michaels' arrests for espionage, about 200 Canadians were thought to be in custody in China. There was no uproar at home about those prisoners. Indeed, the Canadian government said virtually nothing about them, usually refusing to comment on their cases.

Chinese authorities seem never to have used these cases to ratchet up the pressure on Ottawa. A year ago, there were said to be 123 Canadians in Chinese jails, so there is no evidence Canadians are being rounded up as hostages.

The narrative repeated constantly in Canada and widely accepted is that because of our commitment to the rule of law our country had no choice but to go along with the U.S. extradition request, even though holding Meng was arguably not in Canada's interest.

As for the Chinese government's conduct in the matter of the two Michaels, we are constantly told China is a totalitarian country not bound by the rule of law.

Yet the Chinese went all the way to Dandong, which faces North Korea across the Yalu River, to find Spavor, a North Korea watcher and founder of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which describes itself as "an international non-governmental organization that facilitates sport, culture, tourism and business exchanges with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

Spavor has been described by the BBC as close to North Korea's dictator, someone who has "sipped cocktails on board … Kim Jong-un’s private yacht."

Dandong was also home for 24 years to Kevin and Julia Garratt, the Canadian Christian missionaries and restaurateurs who were arrested in 2014 and held three months on spying charges before being sent back to Canada.

In January 2017, The New York Times reported, "Peter's Coffee House, named for one of their sons, quickly became a hub for expatriates, local Chinese curious about the outside world -- and state security agents suspicious of the Garratts and their customers, who included the occasional American or Canadian diplomat." One wonders if Spavor was among their clients.

Kovrig, who was arrested in Beijing, has a resume similar in important respects to Spavor's.

He is a former Canadian diplomat who was stationed in Hong Kong and Beijing, fluent in Mandarin. In 2017, he joined a non-governmental organization called the International Crisis Group as a senior advisor for North East Asia.

The ICG describes itself vaguely as "an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world."

So, regardless of their reality, both men have the kind of backgrounds, jobs and contacts that could plausibly facilitate activities of the sort the Chinese have accused them of conducting.

Clearly the Chinese authorities also looked for Canadians in China who had the kind of connections that would send a much more pointed message than a mere diplomatic note, one that would be understood behind closed doors in Ottawa.

To make the point, in other words, that China was acting in accordance with the rule of law, as opposed to the lawless conduct of the Trump administration, and by implication its Canadian ally.

With the lame duck Trump administration now coming to an end, the two Michaels remain in custody in Dandong and Beijing, and there is talk in the United States of letting Meng skip if only she'll admit a little guilt.

Yesterday, the Chinese government told Canadian officials the two Michaels had been "indicted and tried." Later, they said that was a mistake due to "an inaccurate characterization" by China's spokeswoman. It seems more likely Beijing intended to increase pressure on Canada for Meng's immediate release as the drama enters its endgame.

That feeling, presumably, is also what has led conservatives in both Canada and the United States to crank up their hysterical Cold War-style rhetoric attacking China in the past few days, complete with lurid propaganda from neoliberal think tanks on both sides of the border.

This is doubtless motivated in part by genuine fear in Washington of the geopolitical significance of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which offers an alternative way for nations in the global south to finance development without the strings associated with such Western institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

But it is equally clearly inspired by a cynical short-term desire to weaken conservatives' political opponents at home -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government in Canada and the incoming Biden administration in the United States -- by falsely portraying them as "soft on China."

Listening to the full-court press from Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole is highly ironic considering how hard the Conservatives worked to sign their questionable Foreign Investment Protection Agreement with China in 2014 when Stephen Harper was still prime minister.

In reality, there is not much light between the Trudeau and Harper governments on China.

Also a reality is the fact that Conservatives like O'Toole, sometimes described as Stephen Harper 3.0, surely don't have the two Michaels' interests at heart when they torque up their Trumpian anti-China rhetoric in hopes of wounding Trudeau.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

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