It was predictable that the appearance of the 47-year-old, nondescript woman in a Vancouver court on Wednesday, March 6, would attract a lot of public interest. But court officials had not anticipated the number of people or the platoons of journalists from all over the world who would come to see Meng Wanzhou appear briefly to fix a date for her next court appearance.
The few public seats in the court were quickly taken, and crowds outside complained that officials had not arranged for a video feed of what was happening inside.
Clearly the case of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies has caught the public interest, and understandably so.
Meng was detained by Canadian officials at Vancouver International Airport on December 1. The Canadian border authorities were complying with a warrant for Meng’s detention issued by the US Department of Justice, requesting her extradition to the United States on charges of bank fraud and circumventing Washington’s sanctions against Iran.
Meng’s detention has caused the worst crisis in Canada-China relations since the two established formal diplomatic contact in 1970.
And it is a crisis that gains new momentum almost every day. Thus relations between Ottawa and Beijing appear destined to get much worse before they get better. It is difficult to imagine they will ever regain the cozy, mutual acceptance of much of the last half-century.
Then there are much wider, global implications of the Meng/Huawei Affair that speak of the ongoing efforts by Washington to sustain its own status as the unchallenged superpower in the face of China’s persistent rise and determination to match or overtake US authority.
Huawei, China’s world-leading telecommunications technology company, has become the nation’s champion in the competition to dominate the incoming 5G cellular communications market.
Washington is determined to contain Huawei’s ambitions. It claims that Huawei’s equipment will give the Communist Party of China access to all Western telecommunications.
Washington has banned most US government agencies from using Huawei network equipment. It has also warned America’s closest allies – Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom – that the full sharing of intelligence will end if they adopt Huawei equipment.
Australia and New Zealand are following Washington’s lead, but Canada and the UK are still undecided.
Huawei struck back this week. It announced that it is suing the US government for banning the company from competing for American network contracts.
The Huawei face-off is also going on against the backdrop of tough negotiations between Washington and Beijing over a new trade deal. President Donald Trump has staked his reputation as a champion deal-maker on being able to lower America’s trade deficit with China dramatically.
The implications for Canada of having got caught in this fight are profound
The implications for Canada of having got caught in this fight are profound.
In detaining Meng in Vancouver, where she owns several multimillion-dollar properties and spends some time every year, Canadian officials say they were only following their obligations under the extradition treaty with the US. The Ottawa government quickly stated that her case would be dealt with according to the law and by an independent judiciary.
But Beijing retorted that Meng’s detention was a political act and demanded that she be released.
Several organizations with the hallmarks of creations of Beijing’s United Front Works Department expressed outrage at the Meng case, and some raised the specter of racism by pointing to Canada’s exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the first half of the last century.
Even Beijing’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, in an unusually undiplomatic rant, said Meng’s detention was an example of Canada’s “white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities detained two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.
The two have been held in secret prisons, denied lawyers, and only grudgingly given consular access. As a result of those four visits in three months by Canadian diplomats, it is known that the two are being subjected to sleep deprivation, which many experts consider torture, and are being interrogated for several hours every day.
In mid-January, a Canadian who had been convicted of drug trafficking in China and given a prison sentence, Robert Schellenberg, was brought back to court. His sentence was increased to the death penalty.
Meng, in contrast, is under house arrest in one of her Vancouver homes, and is subject to only a night-time curfew. She has had to hand over her eight passports, and her movements are constrained only by a tracking bracelet, plus the security guards she is paying for.
Beijing intensified the pressure on Canada this week by charging Kovrig and Spavor with “stealing state secrets,” an offense that can also carry the death penalty.
Beijing alleges that Kovrig, who is on secondment from the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry to the International Crisis Group, entered China for “stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence via a contact in China.” That contact, allegedly, was Spavor, who has developed business links to North Korea, and who has a personal relationship with that country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Public opinion in Canada appears to be firmly of the belief that the two Michaels are being held hostage by Chinese authorities against the release of Meng. But rather than echoing public outrage, Ottawa politicians are choosing to deal with the matter quietly and, presumably, make private appeals to their Beijing counterparts.
Ottawa’s insistence that Meng’s case, which could take months or even years to run its course before any final decision on extradition, will be governed by the rule of law and an independent judiciary has taken a bit of a drubbing.
Beijing has seized on allegations by Canada’s former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, that she was pressured by cabinet colleagues and officials to drop criminal bribery charges against the Quebec-based engineering company SNC-Lavalin.
But Beijing’s claim that the Canadian government overrides the rule of law when it is politically expedient has found no traction in Canada.
Perhaps for that reason, Beijing broadened its attack. On March 1 the Chinese customs administration canceled permission for Winnipeg-based Richardson International to import canola seeds into China, citing the discovery of “dangerous pests” in recent shipments.
China takes 40% of Canada’s canola harvest in trade worth C$2.5 billion (US$1.86 billion) that sustains thousands of Canadian farmers.
This is deeply ironic. In 1960 the Canadian government of John Diefenbaker gave de facto recognition to the People’s Republic of China by selling Beijing tens of thousands of tons of wheat and barley at a time when it was desperately needed to counter the famine created by the Great Leap Forward.
Not only that, Canada lent Beijing the hard currency to buy the grains. That established mutual trust and regard that has survived ever since, but which has now been destroyed by the Meng Affair.