Analysis: China pulling out all stops in Canada tensions

By The Canadian Press
January 15, 2019 - 7:15am

BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping's government is sparing no expense to its international reputation in its determination to force Canada to back down over the case of a Chinese telecommunications executive it detained last month.

While Beijing formally denies any connection, the arrest of two Canadians on vague national security charges and the re-sentencing of a convicted Canadian drug smuggler to death on Monday point to a determined campaign of intimidation and retribution.

And while global perceptions of China's adherence to free trade and rule of law may take a beating, for Xi and other highly nationalistic Communist leaders, the stakes are simply too high.

"The Chinese will stop at nothing because it's a huge loss of face, for both the Chinese government and Xi Jinping in particular," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States. The U.S. wants Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei's founder, extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about the company's business dealings in Iran.

China responded nine days later by arresting former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor. On Monday, a Chinese court sentenced Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier.

The actions fit a pattern of retaliation against nations that offend China, which sometimes extends to their citizens inside the country. Past instances have shown China willing to endure long freezes in relations and subsequent damage to its national image.

China suspended its bilateral trade deal with Norway and restricted imports of Norwegian salmon when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to political prisoner Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Britain and other countries were retaliated against over meetings with the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, considered a dangerous separatist by Beijing, and in 2014, a Canadian couple was detained in northeastern China and charged with espionage following Canada's arrest of a man accused of stealing U.S. aviation secrets for China.

Analysts say they have little doubt Kovrig and Spavor's cases are related to Meng's, and the handing down of tougher sentences on appeal is rare enough to arouse suspicion.

"This really hurts China" and its efforts to promote its influence around the world, said David Zweig, a Canadian who directs the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"Xi Jinping has been talking so much about promoting soft power ... I certainly think that it hurts China's soft power and its argument that it supports the rule of law," Zweig said.

Retaliating against Canada, widely seen as a benign influence on the global order, also offers fewer dividends for China than confronting the U.S., which is regarded by many in the international community as at least as much of a bully as China, Zweig said.

"China doesn't win any points by pushing around Canada," he said.

However, Beijing's dismissive attitude toward Canada seems very much in line with its binary view of the world as divided into "big" or powerful nations that need to be deferred to, and "small" ones which China can afford to push around, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

China is picking on Canada "because they can," said Tsang. "It will have lots of negative effects on China's standing in the world and international perceptions of China."

He said Beijing's handling of the case shows its refusal to recognize the concept of an independent judiciary, something unknown in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts. As the daughter of the founder of Huawei — closely connected to China's powerful military and considered something of a national treasure — Meng is afforded special status, Tsang said.

While he predicts further steps by Beijing to pressure Canada, Tsang said he doubts they will have any bearing on the result.

"It will have no impact in terms of how the Canadian government deals with the Meng case," he said.

International observers also point to the strikingly different ways in which the cases are being handled by the two countries. While Meng has been afforded a lawyer and released on bail to her Vancouver mansion, Kovrig and Spavor are being held in cells with only minimal consular access. Canada has also complained that as a former diplomat, Kovrig should be accorded a degree of immunity.

The timing and circumstances of Schellenberg's resentencing are also being called into question. While his case was on appeal, the speed with which the new hearing was held, with only four days' notice, drew criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and a subsequent sharp rebuke of him by Beijing.

Underlying China's behaviour is the apparent conviction that Meng's detention was a political act that must be responded to in kind. Given the limited information about the cases allowed by government censors, Chinese have "no sense that Ms. Meng was grabbed for anything other than political reasons," Zweig said.

"And if it's completely political, then I guess in their viewpoint, kidnapping people is just tit-for-tat," he said.

On Beijing's frigid streets Tuesday, public opinion seemed to be running strongly in the government's favour.

"It shows China is standing up" to Canada, said teacher Liang Reufen, adding that she hopes the matter will not be "elevated to a political level."

Finance worker Huo Yong said politics were already inextricably tied up in the case.

"We should pressure them since they use politics to contain our economic growth," said Huo. "My attitude is, 'whoever bullies us, we should bully them back.'"

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Christopher Bodeen has covered politics in China and Taiwan for The Associated Press for more than two decades.

Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press

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