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Michael Spavor, False Espionage Accusations and Hostage Diplomacy


Mimi Lee Comment: CNN Michael Spavor: Canadian businessman sentenced by Chinese court to 11 years in prison for spying | CNN Photo
Michael Spavor: Canadian businessman sentenced by Chinese court to 11 years in prison for spying | CNN Photo

After nearly three years of uncertainty, Michael Spavor has been charged with espionage by the Chinese courts. For this, he has received an 11-year prison sentence. The precise dimensions of what Mr. Spavor has been accused of are somewhat unclear, on account of Canadian diplomats being denied entry into the court since his first trial in March. He’s hardly alone, either. Two other Canadians were arrested around the same time, the first being Robert Lloyd Schellenberg in November 2018 and the second being Michael Kovrig in December.


What do these men share in common? Well, they’re all Canadian, and their incarceration coincides with the arrest, trial, and process of extradition of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei Technologies and daughter of founder Ren Zhengfei. Arrested on the 1st of December, 2018, Ms. Meng is accused of fraud, violating U.S. sanctions, and stealing trade secrets. Chinese authorities have framed this arrest as an “unreasonable oppression of Chinese enterprises” and lobbied for Canada to drop its extradition hearing for years. Now, just as the formal hearings begin for the extradition process of Ms. Meng, Mr. Sparov has received his verdict. Personally, I find that more than a little suspect.


The Heart of the Issue


Chinese authorities have repeatedly warned Canada that there would be “consequences” for Ms. Meng’s extradition. Unless a truly ghoulish series of coincidences have taken place, those “consequences” appear to fall on the shoulders of Canadians living abroad. Mr. Schellenberg, for instance, was charged with drug smuggling and sentenced to jail in the month of his arrest. These are charges he denies. After Ms. Meng’s arrest, Mr. Schellenberg attempted to appeal his conviction, only to find it upgraded to a death sentence. His attempt to appeal this new sentence has been denied. Mr. Sparov, for his part, faces 11 years in jail, the confiscation of 50,000 yuan worth of property (roughly $9,600 CAD), and extradition to follow. Again, this sentence has passed in close proximity to the scheduling of Ms. Meng’s extradition hearings. Mr. Korvig has yet to receive a trial at all. If this is not blatant hostage diplomacy, it at the very least would seem to be deeply punitive.


What’s particularly telling is that this isn’t even the first time that Canadian nationals have become bargaining chips for Beijing. In 2014, Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained on similar espionage charges to those that Mr. Spavor and Mr. Korvig face. In their case, the accusation came after a Chinese national named Su Bin was accused by the U.S. of stealing data relating to military fighter jets. Much in the same way as Mr. Spavor, Kevin Garratt was detained for two years, during which he was put on trial and given a 6-year prison sentence. While he ultimately never served this sentence and was deported back to Canada two days after receiving it, it’s also notable that Mr. Garratt didn’t even learn that he’d been convicted until 5 months after the trial. His detainment was, in effect, an arbitrary exercise in obfuscation and cruelty. Mr. Spavor’s trial appears to be no different.


Mimi Lee Comment: Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have leaned on U.S. President Joe Biden for support
Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have leaned on U.S. President Joe Biden for support | New York Times Photo


So, what can the Canadian government do?


I understand that to most Canadians, this whole situation seems frustrating and unsolvable. I don’t believe it is. The Chinese Communist Party can and must be held accountable for its callous attitude towards human rights. At present, I would strongly encourage Prime Minister Trudeau to take action as soon as possible. It is clear to me that Prime Minister Trudeau and his government are aware of the situation’s severity, and have leaned on U.S. President Joe Biden for support. That’s not a bad start, but it needs to go further. Canada has power that it can exert in this situation; border control, tariffs and other trade regulations. This kind of diplomatic petulance cannot be allowed to become normalized. It is clear that China has no issue with putting undue pressure on Canadian citizens in order to resolve diplomatic issues, and that is unacceptable. Human lives are not bargaining chips.


No Canadian, and indeed no living human being, should ever be viewed as an expendable pawn.


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