Meng and the Michaels: why China’s embrace of hostage diplomacy is a warning to other nations

The release of two Canadian hostages by China has ended a lengthy feud between the two countries, but experts caution the saga foreshadows a deepening rift between the two nations.

After facing charges of espionage and spending more than 1,000 days in detention, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were set free by Chinese authorities late last week. Accompanied by Canada’s ambassador to China, the pair arrived home early on Saturday morning.

The two had been detained after Canada’s arrest of the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who also arrived home after she and the US justice department reached a deferred prosecution agreement.

The surprise releases ended an impasse that tested the diplomatic resolve of Canada, which found itself caught in the middle of a broader feud between Beijing and Washington.

But experts caution that China’s increasingly hardline approach – and the brazenness with which it was willing to engage in “hostage diplomacy” – should be taken as a warning to other nations.

“China was sending a message not just to Canada, but to every other country in the world that they take hostages. And if you step out of line from their policies or don’t toe the line the way Beijing has instructed you to do, then they will take retaliatory action and kidnap your citizens,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs. “This is the behaviour of a medieval kingdom – not a 2021 superpower.”

Beijing has maintained the arrest of the Canadians was unconnected to Meng, but it has suggested their fates were linked. Beijing gave no legal explanation for the Canadians’ release or the timing of it, only later saying the two men had applied for and been granted bail on unspecified “medical grounds”.

Michael Kovrig waves to the media with his wife and sister after arriving in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on 25 September 2021.
Michael Kovrig waves to the media with his wife and sister after arriving in Toronto’s Pearson international airport on 25 September. Photograph: Frank Gunn/AP

The detention of Meng was “a political frame-up and persecution against a Chinese citizen, an act designed to hobble Chinese hi-tech companies”, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Monday. “Canada should draw lessons and act in ways that serve its own interests.”

In China the focus has been squarely on Meng. State media coverage of the hero’s welcome barely – if at all – mentioned the Canadians’ cases, and discussions on social media were quickly censored. As she arrived on a chartered jet to a red carpet and welcome home messages on Shenzhen’s tallest skyscraper, the executive’s return was credited to the “unremitting efforts” of the Chinese Communist party government.

Before Canada found itself the target of China’s outrage, the two countries had been on the verge of negotiating a free trade agreement. Canadian companies, spurned by protectionist measures in the US under Donald Trump, had been eager to find new markets for their heavy oil, metallurgical coal, timber and agricultural products.

But Ottawa’s refusal to cave to demands for Meng’s release makes it difficult for the two countries to move forward in normalising relations, said McCuaig-Johnson.

A crowd holds up a banner reading ‘Welcome home, Ms Meng Wanzhou’ at Shenzhen’s Bao’an international airport on 25 September.
A crowd holds up a banner reading ‘Welcome home, Ms Meng Wanzhou’ at Shenzhen’s Bao’an international airport on 25 September. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

“Canada wasn’t seen as giving China what it wanted,” she said. “As a result, Canada is still likely to be frozen out of a lot of activities in China.”

The headaches Canadian companies might face in the coming months come against the backdrop of President Xi Jinping’s recent moves to reshape China’s economy and his government’s aggressive approach to foreign technology companies.

In addition to the challenges of a middle-power country squaring off against an economic powerhouse, Canada’s exclusion from the Aukus pact complicates its ability to exercise influence in the region. McCuaig-Johnson believes the federal government is likely to ban Huawei’s 5G infrastructure in the coming months, which could improve its standing among allies – but will probably further frustrate China.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the frosty relationship,” she said.

Even without the broader geopolitical backdrop, there is little popular support in Canada for re-engaging with Beijing.

Canadian views of China have dimmed in recent years and major political parties have made being tough on China part of their platforms, said Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

“Even if the government wanted relations to go back to the way they were before, they would be reprimanded by the opposition as well as by the electorate,” she said.

Canada’s foreigner minister admitted as much over the weekend to CBC News, when he said Canada’s “eyes are wide open” when it next steps with China, adding his government planned to “coexist”, “compete”, “cooperate”, and “challenge”.

The speed with which China released the two captives is also unlikely to help normalise relations, said Ong, because it only underscores the reality that both men were being held hostage.

“Given China’s insistence the case of the two Michaels was not a hostage exchange – that they violated a Chinese law – it seems they would have done more to maintain that idea,” she said. “But the timing of their release certainly does suggest China has lifted the veil of the facade.”

The US also appeared keen to avoid the perception that it had made any prisoner exchange agreement. On Monday the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, rejected the suggestion, and said the Canadians’ cases had been discussed – but not negotiated – in a phone call between Joe Biden and Xi weeks earlier.

Psaki said the deferred prosecution agreement with Meng was an independent action by the department of justice. “This is a law enforcement matter,” she said, adding: “There is no link.”

While relations between China and Canada are likely to remain chilled, China’s actions have spurred other nations to take on more defensive positions.

“China is now feeling the heat of western democracies forming alliances and trying to contain its rise,” she said, pointing to the group of allies gathered outside the courts while the two Canadians were facing charges, as well as a joint declaration condemning arbitrary detention. “They got Ms Meng in the end – but that win might have come at a huge cost.”

China Politics

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