Five hundred and fifty-seven days after Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were first detained by Chinese authorities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he is “disappointed” that China has now formally charged the two men with spying.
Asked what his government would do to secure the release of these Canadian nationals, Trudeau said Canada would continue to work “behind the scenes in very direct and firm ways.”
“We take very, very seriously the situation of Canadians in difficulty overseas. Over the past years, we’ve had a number of successes in liberating Canadians,” he said at a press conference in Chelsea, Que.
“We will continue to use all of our expertise to return these two Michaels to Canada.”
China formally announced the charges shortly after midnight eastern time, but Trudeau did not mention the two men in his prepared opening remarks this morning.
His only comments on the matter came when he was asked by the press to respond to China’s latest action.
Watch: Trudeau is ‘disappointed’ the China charged two Canadians
Kovrig was charged by Beijing on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence. Spavor was charged in Dandong, a city near the North Korean border, on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.
The charges were announced by China’s highest prosecutor’s office in brief social media posts. CCTV, a state-owned broadcaster controlled by the Communist regime in Beijing, read the charges live in a national broadcast.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters the “circumstances are particularly serious,” and that the government has amassed “solid and sufficient” evidence to proceed with criminal charges against both men.
Under Chinese law, there is no formal timeline for sending someone to trial after charges are laid.
Activists and academics have raised serious concerns about the independence of the Chinese judiciary, with critics accusing the court system of being an organ of the Communist party.
Asked if he thought the two men were “hostages,” Trudeau pivoted to a line he’s repeated more than once — that Canada is “doing everything it can” to secure their release and end their “arbitrary detention.”
Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, the company where Kovrig works as a senior adviser on northeast Asian issues, said the charges against Kovrig are bogus and he was not engaged in “espionage.”
“This is yet another arbitrary and baseless step in a case that has been arbitrary and baseless from day one,” Malley said in a statement, noting that everything Kovrig did in China was “open, transparent and well known to China’s authorities.”
“He has become an unfortunate pawn in a larger struggle among the U.S., Canada and China,” Malley said.
Trudeau said it’s a “terrible shame” that China has tied the Spavor and Kovrig cases to the December 2018 Vancouver arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei.
The daughter of Huawei’s founder was arrested at the request of U.S. authorities who want her on fraud charges related to trade with Iran.
China has denied any link between Meng’s case and the lengthy detention of the two Canadian men, but outside experts see them as linked. Meng has been released on bail while her extradition case proceeds in court.
Meng is accused of lying to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong in August 2013 about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom, a company prosecutors claim was violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
‘Policy of appeasement’
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said the formal charges will make it much more difficult to negotiate Kovrig and Spavor’s safe return to Canada. He said the charges are clearly tied to Meng’s ongoing legal challenges.
“They have decided to add pressure on the Canadian government by formally proceeding with this trial,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
He said the likelihood of Kovrig and Spavor being convicted is high — the conviction rate for these offences is 99.9 per cent, he said — and they are likely to receive life sentences from the regime-dominated judiciary.
“If we go back to China and ask them to return our two Canadians, they will say: ‘Don’t ask us to intervene in a legal process, don’t you know China is a country governed by the rule of law?'”
He said, to this point, Canada has followed a policy of “appeasement” with China that has proven fruitless.
He said the Liberal government has been reluctant to comment on Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, call out the regime for building concentration camps for Muslim Uighurs and criticize China’s slow COVID-19 response — and yet China still holds two Canadian nationals in prison on questionable grounds.
“What have we achieved so far with this appeasement strategy? I’d argue nothing,” Saint-Jacques said. Canada must now take an aggressive approach to its dealings with China, he said.
“We should look at everything in China and see where we can be less forthcoming than what we have been up to now,” he said.
The former ambassador said Canada should move its trade away from China to other Asian nations and step up inspections of Chinese exports.
He said Canadian authorities should jail Chinese spies and work with allies to “tarnish the reputation” of China.