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Treatment of the Two Michaels reveals Canada’s lack of leverage in Beijing

Click to play video: 'Michael Spavor trial in China ends without a verdict' Michael Spavor trial in China ends without a verdict
The trial for Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians detained in China, took place behind closed doors and ended without a verdict after just two hours. Global News' Abigail Bimman joins Antony Robart with the details – Mar 19, 2021

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the hostages that Beijing infamously abducted in response to the lawful arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, are set to go to “trial.”

Yet anyone who knows much about China’s legal system already understands the conclusion of the trial has already been determined by the Chinese Communist Party.

Read more: Canada should have taken stronger action on China as 2 Michaels were detained, experts say

The secret sham trials, which Canadian authorities have hitherto failed to secure access to, are another dark step toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion. Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent; cases are often heard in a matter of mere hours; Spavor’s trial apparently ended in two hours. It may be some time before the official verdict is public. Yet Kovrig and Spavor, whose only “crime” is being Canadian in the wrong place at the wrong time, could eventually be sentenced to many more years in Chinese prison. The death penalty for espionage is not out of the question, either.

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The timing is no accident. Set against a backdrop of bilateral meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials in Anchorage, it is possible the trials are a sort of flex from Beijing ahead of negotiations that could set the tone for Sino-American relations under the Biden administration. Moreover, with Meng’s legal team failing to secure her release, her extradition is looking increasingly likely.

What stands out most at this moment is how little leverage or power Canada has. Our response has been downright paltry. Kovrig and Spavor have suffered under torturous conditions with virtually no consular access. By all accounts, the trial announcement came as a surprise for Ottawa. Short of capitulating to China by abandoning our principles around the rule of law and releasing Meng, or hoping for an American-brokered solution, Canada’s options at this juncture are incredibly limited.

Click to play video: '2 Michaels: What comes next after Michael Spavor’s trial ends in just two hours?' 2 Michaels: What comes next after Michael Spavor’s trial ends in just two hours?
2 Michaels: What comes next after Michael Spavor’s trial ends in just two hours? – Mar 19, 2021

It did not have to be this way.

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China’s hostage diplomacy persists because Beijing is encouraged by our weakness. A bully only engages in a shakedown if they believe they will get what they want. By failing to rise to the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, the decision-makers in Beijing believe that Canada can be coerced.

Instead of sanctioning human rights violators in China, Canada did nothing meaningful. Our government remained timid, simply eliciting anodyne statements from like-minded allies expressing disapproval for arbitrary detention. But Canada was reluctant to reciprocally make common cause with the many other middle powers whose citizens have been similarly victims of China’s increasing application of hostage diplomacy coercion. Sooner than making common-sense decisions such as barring Huawei from 5G or opening our doors to Hong Kong refugees, Ottawa looked eager to return to the “business as usual” relationship that China has for decades exploited and abused.

Canada’s failure to stand up for itself has all but guaranteed this outcome. Kovrig and Spavor are now facing sham trials and Canada has virtually no leverage. A major reversal in our hitherto passive strategy is necessary if we hope to inspire a better result.

Read more: ‘Hypocritical and arrogant’ — China angered as Canada calls out shadowy trials of 2 Michaels

And yet, even failing a solution motivated by concrete Canadian action, there is a thin ray of hope for Kovrig and Spavor. After their conviction, China could well decide that the political price it has paid, including the obliteration of Canadian goodwill towards the People’s Republic, does not merit the continuation of this charade.

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Beijing could also release Kovrig and Spavor as a fake olive branch designed to trick a new administration in Washington and a weak-willed Canadian government to ignore China’s many transgressions. This was the case with Kevin Garratt, another Canadian victim of China’s hostage diplomacy, whose release in 2017 just two days after an absurd eight-year sentence was handed down was misread by Ottawa as evidence that Beijing could be reasoned with.

But recent years have given stunning clarity to the true nature of the CCP regime. Petty, vindictive, arbitrary, and brutal, Beijing has made no mystery about its authoritarian intentions. Kovrig and Spavor’s plight fits a pattern of belligerence from the regime, including its military incursions and overt threat against its neighbours, genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, blanket repression of cultural, racial, and religious minorities, militarization of international waters in the South China Sea, repression in Hong Kong, and so much more.

Canada’s naïveté toward China has left us impotent and rudderless in the face of Beijing’s aggression. What is desperately needed is for Ottawa to finally wake up to the reality that Canadians have acknowledged for some time: China is a clear threat that we must be prepared to stand against in concert with our allies.

Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad, and a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. 

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Brett Byers is the Communications and Digital Media Manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute 

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