People celebrate the arrival home of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at Shenzhen International Airport. Photo: AFP / Miyuki Yoshioka

The sudden release of Meng Wanzhou caught many people by surprise, and a flurry of analysis and speculations has followed since her uneventful arrival in Shenzhen, China. For residents of Sleepy Hollow and others who might wonder what the excitement was all about, it’s time for a refresher review.

Shenzhen is the home base for Huawei, China’s and the world’s leading telecommunications company. Meng is the chief financial officer of this giant company and she also happens to be the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the founder and chairman of Huawei.

More than thousand days ago, Meng was detained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while in transit at the international airport of Vancouver, British Columbia. The arrest was made at the request of the US Department of Justice, when Donald Trump was president of the United States.

The US alleged that Meng had misrepresented Huawei’s business dealings with Iran to HSBC, thus causing the bank to violate US sanctions imposed on Iran.

In 2015, the five members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and US) plus Germany had struck a long-term deal with Iran on its nuclear program. The deal was created after much effort by all parties to ensure stability in the Middle East.

When Trump became president, he flatly opposed anything Barack Obama, his predecessor, had stood for. Thus he unilaterally reneged on the agreement known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and imposed sanctions on Iran on the pretext that he could get a better deal than the JCPOA. Trump, of course, did not bother to consult with the other five nations that had co-signed the original agreement with Iran.

Meng detained on flimsy charges

As I summarized the Meng affair nearly a year ago, Washington cobbled together a flimsy set of charges to justify her arrest. Basically, a Chinese citizen doing business with a British bank was accused of violating American sanctions on Iran that neither China nor the UK had anything to do with. Subsequent examination revealed that even those accusations were on shaky grounds.

Trump had conned Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, into caving into Washington’s wishes to make the arrest. By taking Ren’s daughter hostage, Trump had hoped to blackmail Ren in some way that only Trump could have dreamed up.

Two years after the arrest, it became increasingly obvious that America’s long arm of extraterritorial reach was becoming a source of embarrassment for Washington and Ottawa. The US DOJ then resorted to its usual trick and offered to release Meng if she would plead guilty to a lesser charge. She stood fast and refused.

Historically, the American scale of justice has always been tilted in favor of the government. Even when the DOJ is clearly in the wrong, as it was in the case of Wen Ho Lee, he had to plead guilty to computer downloading in violation of laboratory rules in exchange for time served, which was a harsh 10 months of solitary confinement.

Recent history is replete with examples of miscarriages of justice meted out by the DOJ against Chinese-Americans. The US government has virtually infinite resources to wear down the hapless accused. But it didn’t work against Meng because she was not American and she had the resources of Huawei and China to back her stance.

Biden missed doing the right thing

Then Joe Biden became the US president. He could have immediately ordered dropping the American request to extradite Meng and get Trudeau off the hook, and Canada from being the country caught awkwardly in the middle. But Biden did not. He was under the influence of his China team.

Whether it was China’s first meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Anchorage, Alaska, or subsequently with visiting Deputy State Secretary Wendy Sherman or with special envoy John Kerry, Beijing’s message remained the same: China would not let the US pick and choose which issues to cooperate on and which issues to compete and confront China on. 

From Beijing’s point of view, the Biden administration cannot go around the world lying about China’s conduct and recruiting allies to oppose China as if engaged in another cold war, and still expect collaboration on selected global issues. Without mutual respect, there will be no trust nor confidence in each other on doing the right thing.

Beijing handed each visiting American envoy a list of demands to be met if Washington wished to repair bilateral relations.

Interestingly, as the South China Morning Post reported, John Thornton was a visitor in China for six weeks shortly before the release of Meng. Thornton has a deep China background. He is a professor at Tsinghua University and the chairman of the board of trustees at the Brookings Institution, where the China Center is named after him.

Unlike the official envoys from Washington who were not invited to visit Beijing, Thornton met with Vice-Premier Han Zheng in the national capital. They discussed what it would take to resume bilateral talks, and then Thornton was allowed to visit Xinjiang for a week.

It’s hard to know the exact role Thornton played in triggering the release of Meng and whether the release represents a real first step toward normalizing relations and the abandonment of Trump’s confrontation with China.

The face-saving deal that allowed the DOJ to cancel the extradition request and secure Meng’s release was a device called a deferred prosecution agreement. The agreement did not require any admission of guilt by Meng.

Within an hour of Meng’s final release by the Canadian court, she got on a Chinese airliner and flew home to Shenzhen. As a show of the lack of trust and to avoid unpleasant surprises (in case Washington suffered seller’s remorse), the airliner skirted around Alaska airspace when it flew over the Arctic circle.

Since Washington insisted on designating China as an adversary, only the Biden White House can decide when and if China should no longer be considered an adversary but a powerful collaborator that the US could work with to resolve all the challenges facing the world. Perhaps a trusted intermediary like Thornton could help persuade Biden that following Trump on China policy has been a road to disaster.

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.