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With the swap of the two Michaels for Meng Wanzhou, experts say hostage diplomacy seems to have worked for China — for now


With the swap of the two Michaels for Meng Wanzhou, experts say hostage diplomacy seems to have worked for China — for now

Political and legal experts couldn’t believe what they were hearing Friday night.

Just hours after U.S. prosecutors dropped an extradition warrant and allowed Canada to release Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, China announced Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would be released as well.

After years of denying the imprisonment of the two Michaels for espionage had anything to do with the arrest of Meng for fraud, China seemed to have dropped the charade. This was hostage diplomacy, and it looked to have paid off.

“I am shocked at what happened yesterday, genuinely shocked,” said Stephanie Carvin, associate professor of international relations at Carlton University. “China has been doing everything it can to try and make the case that the two incidents are completely separate. By letting the two Michaels go, even before Michael Kovrig had his sentence handed down, it just shows exactly what this is about.”

The diplomatic implications of China’s hostage taking, at first glance as successful as it was brazen, are murky. China seems to have gotten what it wanted, and may now be able to intimidate its way out of future extradition efforts, but experts told the Star this could still come with consequences for the country.

Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said while Meng’s return is being lauded in her home country, bringing her home will have a lasting, negative impact on how the world sees China.

“Even though, domestically, Meng’s return was greeted triumphantly as a sign of Chinese power, internationally people have really turned against China because of it,” Ong said. “China has paid a tremendous cost in the process. Its international reputation has really been tarnished as a result.”

Errol Mendes, professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said there are now two emerging schools of thought about what motivated China to release the Michaels quickly enough to remove doubt they were hostages.

“This could be Xi Jinping telling the world ‘We’re strong now, we can take you on regardless of what you think of us,’ but I’m not completely convinced of this,” he said. “I think there was some kind of discussion that went on between President Biden and President Xi, where Biden pointed out Xi had more to lose by keeping the Michaels for a few more months than if they released them immediately. In time, we’ll find out more.”

Ong said the situation has set an “unprecedented precedent” in terms of hostage diplomacy. She said it will affect how arrests of Chinese executives might be carried out in the future, should there be cause.

“This shows we are sending the wrong signal, that hostage diplomacy works,” said Ong. “I think if the U.S. were to ask any allied country to make an arrest on its behalf now, no one would do it.”

Ong said if a situation like Meng’s were to arise again, where the U.S. was seeking to criminally charge a high-profile Chinese national, the U.S. would have to send in their own personnel to make the arrest.

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What has happened to the Michaels would act as a strong deterrent for U.S. allies, she said, who will likely be too nervous to comply with future extradition requests.

Julian Ku, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, called this intimidation effect China’s “real victory,” adding that Canada and the U.S. were “naive” to think the Chinese government would respect their judicial process.

“It’s great that the two Michaels have been released, but overall, this is a loss for the U.S. and Canada,” said Ku. “The deal to send Meng home is unlikely to have been the same deal they would have made if there hadn’t been the pressure of China essentially having two hostages.”

Ku said Meng being allowed to return home and escape criminal liability “undermines the U.S.-Canada legal system and their ability to prosecute and get people to co-operate with extradition.”

Carvin said if it’s China’s victory, it’s Pyrrhic. As part of the deal that allowed Meng’s return, Meng had to admit the U.S. case against her was factual, which she had denied all the way until this week.

“In the short term, maybe China got what it wanted,” she said. “But in the longer term, this will have created some issues for it. I don’t think we should underplay the significance of a senior Huawei official admitting wrongdoing and signing her name to a document saying that. The Americans now have some ammunition, that could play out importantly down the road.”

Carvin argues that Canada now needs to focus on creating strong foreign policy, adding that none of the parties, in her view, devoted enough effort to it.

“It’s not just the Liberal party,” she said. “The NDP put more strategy into its Tik Toks than it did to its foreign policy. The Conservatives have a lot of loud rhetoric, but not a lot of ideas for implementations. All parties have ignored very serious global affairs problems and figuring out how we’re going to engage with the world.”

Ong said there was likely nothing Canada could have done to expedite the return of the Michaels, owing to the “passive and reactive” position Canada was in.

“Canada worked tirelessly behind the scenes to negotiate and bargain with the U.S. and Chinese to secure the Michaels’ release, which is what led to today’s outcome,” she said. “I think this happened as swiftly as it could have happened.”

Ku, admitting his frustration with the situation, agreed.

“There’s not much Canada could have done differently,” he said. “The other side was willing to play dirty.”

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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