Michael Spavor in North Korea with Kim Jong-un, back in the day.
Michael Spavor in North Korea with Kim Jong-un, back in the day. Credit: Michael Spavor / Facebook Credit: Michael Spavor / Facebook

A few days less than three years ago, I asked in this space: “Why did China’s government pluck the Two Michaels from among 300,000 Canadians in China?”

The answer, I suggested then, was that both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had “the kind of backgrounds, jobs and contacts that could plausibly facilitate activities of the sort the Chinese have accused them of conducting.”

Spavor and Kovrig are back in the news, with the former saying in the words of The Globe and Mail that “it was intelligence work by the latter that led to both men’s incarceration by Chinese authorities.”

Spavor says he was deceived by Kovrig “and he wants a multimillion-dollar settlement from Ottawa,” the Globe reported. 

“Startling revelations,” yelped the Toronto Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein.

“H o l y S h * t,” intoned the Globe’s own Andrew Coyne, surely nowadays the biggest kahuna of Canadian political analysis. 

Global Affairs Canada is already dismissing Spavor’s allegations as bilgewater. 

Well, whatever Spavor and Kovrig were actually up to, there’s egg all over the faces of the Canadian political, media and intelligence establishments tonight.

So it’s worth taking a look back at some of what I wrote in December 2020 about the arrest two years earlier by Chinese authorities of the men who were soon known throughout Canada as The Two Michaels.

Their arrests were obviously intended by Beijing as a message to the Government of Canada about the arrest in this country of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of one of the most influential men in China. 

Meng was snatched by the Mounties at the request of US authorities on December 1, 2018, in Vancouver, where she had a residence. 

She was an excellent catch for then-president Donald Trump’s publicly admitted plan to use her as a bargaining chip in high-stakes negotiations with China for a trade deal more to his administration’s liking.

“The US authorities seem to have concluded, obviously correctly, that their Canadian counterparts would meekly go along with the dubious scheme to arrest her during a stopover for supposedly ignoring US sanctions against Iran, even though Canada and other Western countries had not enacted similar sanctions,” I wrote at the time.

Clearly then, and clearly now, the right move for Canada would have been to let her board her plane for China, quietly advise her not to return, and then apologize to the Americans that she had accidentally slipped away. Notwithstanding all the pish-posh we heard in Canada about the rule of law, that is how the geopolitical game is sensibly played. 

But, I asked, “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 US 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 Chinese. In 2017, he joined a non-governmental organization called the International Crisis Group (ICG) 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. (Emphasis added to the original.) https://albertapolitics.ca/2020/12/why-did-chinas-government-pluck-the-two-michaels-from-among-300000-canadians-in-china/ 

Now, it would appear, there was more than just verisimilitude to the Chinese government’s suspicions, and more than just honest outrage to the Canadian government’s protestations of the Two Michaels’ innocence. 

Well, there is a long way for this story to go, and many revelations, no doubt, yet to be made. 

Meng was released from house arrest in Vancouver on September 24, 2021, and immediately flew home to China. A year later, with Trump out of the White House, the U. charges against her were dismissed. Canada looked like a chump.

And what about Robert Lloyd Schellenberg?

And what about the case of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, the Canadian schmuck found guilty of drug smuggling by China not long before Meng’s arrest?

Once the Two Michaels had returned to Canada, Canadian media lost all interest in the fate of the poor guy, found guilty of trying to smuggle drugs out of China to Australia, who had his 15-year jail term goosed up to a death sentence to increase the pressure on Canada to release Meng. 

A Chinese court rejected Schellenberg’s appeal of his death sentence in 2021. 

There doesn’t seem to have been another news report about him since then. 

He wasn’t a model citizen, a spy, or a corporate executive. He’s still a Canadian, though. Does anybody give a hoot?

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...