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Canada China Rising, Episode 9: Meng and the Two Michaels

19:16  02 september  2021
19:16  02 september  2021 Source:   globalnews.ca

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On Dec. 11, 2018, Jacco Zwetsloot was looking forward to reconnecting with an old friend.

He lives in Seoul, South Korea, and was attending a lecture at a local academic association. That's where he planned to meet his Canadian friend, Michael Spavor.

The two had known each other for a decade, but Spavor had moved from Seoul to China several years earlier and the two friends hadn't seen each other in over a year.

Spavor was coming to town for a visit. They planned to attend the lecture and then go out for a drink.

But as the lecturer was introduced, Zwetsloot scanned the room. There was no sign of Spavor.

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"When he didn't turn up to that lecture, I thought, oh, I wonder what's happened," Zwetsloot told Global News.

He sent him a text message. No response.

Zwetsloot then woke up the next morning to news that another Canadian, Michael Kovrig, had been detained in China and accused of being a spy.

By that evening, Zwetsloot began to panic. He still had word from his friend.

"By Wednesday evening, I was doing all I could to contact my contact at the Canadian embassy here in Seoul to find out whether it was possible to ascertain whether Michael had entered the country or not, because I felt that something had definitely gone wrong," he said.

"The next morning, it was confirmed that Michael Spavor had also been detained."

On Episode 9 of China Rising, we’ll update the story that has cast a shadow over Canada-China relations for nearly three years. Sept. 5, 2021, marks 1,000 days since Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China. Their arrests are widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States.

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As Meng’s extradition hearing finally draws to a close and the "Two Michaels" prepare to learn their fate, we’ll hear from the families and friends who are fighting desperately to bring them home.

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Spavor grew up in Calgary, Alta., and in his early 20s, he took a trip to Seoul, which sparked his fascination with the region.

He went on to study, live and work in South Korea, becoming fluent in Korean.

Around 2005, Spavor started working in the non-profit sector, promoting tourism and investment into North Korea, and organizing trips for Canadians and other Westerners to visit the so-called Hermit Kingdom. In 2010, his friend Zwetsloot joined one of those tours.

"He moved to north-east China to really work on his passion, which is bringing together people from North Korea and the rest of the world," Zwetsloot said.

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From his home in northern China, Spavor worked to drum up international investments and promote economic projects in North Korea, at a time when the reclusive regime's relations with the West appeared to be warming.

Spavor also arranged hockey tournaments in the capital, Pyongyang, with professional players from Canada and all over the world.

Zwetsloot said Spavor's success in navigating that geopolitically tricky terrain is a testament to his charismatic, magnetic personality.

"He had the ability to go up to people who are complete strangers and strike up a conversation with them in English or in Korean and become friends with them by the end of the exchange," he said.

In 2013, Spavor made international headlines when he helped to facilitate a trip to North Korea for American basketball star Dennis Rodman. The NBA hall-of-famer had struck up an unlikely friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Spavor tagged along with Rodman for the visit and fostered his own relationship with Kim, becoming one of the few Westerners with personal ties to the North Korean government. Spavor's Instagram photos from 2017 show the Canadian jet-skiing and sharing cocktails with Kim Jong-un onboard one of Kim's private boats.

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"People have issues with the government of North Korea, but it's the people that really won Michael's hearts," Zwetsloot said. "And he felt that they deserve better, that they deserved more exchange and more contact with people. And that's what Michael was trying to do, in a way that was non-confrontational, inoffensive to the governments of any country, but just bringing people to people together."

In 2017, at around the same time that Spavor was meeting with Kim, another Canadian named Michael Kovrig had just landed a new job in Hong Kong.

Kovrig grew up in Toronto in a family of travellers. His mother was a Czech immigrant raised in Montreal, while his father was a successful businessman and university professor from Austria.

Korvig graduated with an English degree from the University of Toronto in 1994 and set out to see the world and teach overseas.

He returned to school in his late 20s and earned another degree in international relations from Columbia University in 2003. That's also where he met his wife, Vina Nadjibulla.

"Michael was an amazing student," she recalled. "He is quite studious and bookish. I think our connection was mainly around conversation and music and poetry. We spent hours talking when we first met."

Kovrig eventually landed a job as a strategic communication specialist for the U.N. Development Program and later as a China analyst for an American research firm.

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He spent two years learning Mandarin before joining the Canadian Embassy in Beijing as vice-consul in 2014.

In 2017, he became a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group based in Hong Kong.

"He is interested in making the world a better place and making himself the best man that he can be," Nadjibulla told Global News. "And, of course, this experience — these last two and a half years have been quite a masterclass in character building."

Nadjibulla said Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had met only once before very briefly, while hanging out with a group of other expats in Beijing. But in December 2018, their fates collided.

"It was definitely a shock. And the first few days were very much a shock. And I think a lot of us at that point hope that all of this would be resolved quickly, that it was a misunderstanding, that there was no way that this could continue."

On Dec. 1, 2018, just days before the two Michaels were arrested in China, Meng Wanzhou landed at Vancouver International Airport.

Meng is the chief financial officer of Huawei; the Chinese company is the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and was once one of the world’s biggest smartphone sellers.

She'd arrived from Hong Kong on a layover en route to Mexico for a business meeting. Besides being a top executive, Meng is also the daughter of Huawei's founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei.

She travelled a lot for work. Her passport was packed with visas from many of the 170 countries where Huawei does business. But on this trip, as she handed that well-worn passport to the Canadian Border Services agent, it was flagged. There was a warrant for Meng's arrest from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Video: Meng Wanzhou defence team argues U.S. fraud charges aren’t valid

From the moment Meng was placed in handcuffs by an RCMP officer, her detention has cast a long shadow over Canada-China relations.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked if he knew in advance of Meng's travel plans and her imminent arrest.

He said, he did.

"The appropriate authorities took the decisions in this case," Trudeau told reporters in December 2018.

"We were advised by them with a few days' notice that this was in the works but of course there was no engagement or involvement in the political level in this decision, because we respect the independence of our judicial processes."

Video: Trudeau refuses to trade Meng for Spavor, Kovrig

But despite Canada's claims of judicial independence, both Beijing and Meng's employer, Huawei, immediately condemned the U.S. charges as entirely baseless and politically motivated.

At the time of Meng's arrest in 2018, the U.S. was embroiled in a trade war with China. And Huawei, as a prominent Chinese tech firm, had become a favourite target of the Trump administration.

"Meng Wanzhou is a political pawn. She's been caught in the middle of this U.S.-China trade fight," said Alykhan Velshi, vice president of corporate affairs for Huawei Canada.

Velshi points to comments made by Trump just days after Meng's arrest. The then-U.S. president told the Reuters news agency he would "certainly intervene" in the case if he thought it would help secure a favourable trade deal with China.

“This case is about trade. It's about geopolitics. It's about leverage, but it's not about justice," Velshi told Global News.

The U.S. accuses Meng of making misleading statements to HSBC about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran. The allegations centre on a powerpoint presentation she gave to HSBC executives in Hong Kong back in 2013. Meng allegedly tried to reassure the British bank that Huawei was not doing business in Iran, when in fact one of its subsidiaries, a company called SkyCom, was active in the country.

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Huawei's activities in Iran were permissible, according to most other countries. But the U.S. had levied sanctions against Iran, which meant that certain Iranian transactions, if made in U.S. dollars through a bank branch in the United States, were illegal.

The Americans want Meng extradited to New York to face criminal charges of fraud.

"The Trump administration essentially conjured up a victim in HSBC to justify her detention so that she could be used as leverage in this U.S.-China trade fight," Velshi said.

Velshi noted that HSBC never actually suffered any financial losses or violated any U.S. sanctions as a result of Meng's statements. Nevertheless, the U.S. claims her actions put the bank at risk.

"This is unusual," said Joanna Harrington, a law professor at the University of Alberta.

"The U.S. has put so much effort into an allegation of fraud that occurred outside the United States, not by an American and not necessarily an American victim."

"Criminal law is typically territorial. That's where your evidence is, it's where your witnesses are. It doesn't mean we can't have an extraterritorial criminal case, but this one is unusual."

At times during the hearing, Justice Heather Holmes sounded similarly skeptical of the charges. At one point, she asked the prosecution: "Isn't it unusual that one would see a fraud case with no actual harm, many years later, and one in which the alleged victim — a large institution — appears to have numerous people within the institution who had all the facts that are now said to have been misrepresented?"

"The questions that she asked and comments that she made seemed to indicate that she's not impressed by the strength of the evidence," said veteran extradition lawyer Gary Botting.

He lives on the eastern edge of B.C.'s Lower Mainland and has tried hundreds of cases over his 30-year career.

Even if the judge isn't buying the prosecution's case, he said, the bar for extradition in Canada is incredibly low.

Government lawyers only need to demonstrate that there would be sufficient evidence to bring the accused to trial if the crime had been committed in Canada.

Between 2008 and 2018, Canada granted about 98 per cet of U.S. extradition requests.

"We are a patsy for the United States. They say 'jump' and we say, 'how high?" Botting said. "We've given that part of our sovereignty away, it seems to me. And that's why I've been railing against this for 30 years now."

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Assuming Meng does not beat those long odds and is ordered extradited to the United States, she's widely expected to appeal, which could see the case drag on for years.

"The Chinese government has been clear. They have indicated in the past that if Mrs. Meng is not returned to China, there will be no progress," said Guy Saint Jacques, Canada's former ambassador to Beijing.

On Oct. 21, the B.C. judge will announce the date that she will present her ruling in Meng's case.

If Meng loses and is ordered extradited to the U.S., the Canadian government will still have an opportunity to intervene. The final decision in all extradition cases falls to Canada's minister of justice, the attorney general.

Read more: Prominent Canadians call on Trudeau to end Meng Wanzhou case to free 2 Michaels

But the Canadian government has been steadfast in its resolve not to get involved, despite pressure from a number of former Canadian diplomats and parliamentarians that the government agree to a prisoner swap and trade Meng for the Two Michaels.

Trudeau, currently running for re-election as Canadian prime minister, has consistently ruled out any intervention in the case that, in his words, would undermine Canada’s “independent judicial system."

Former ambassador Saint Jacques believes the most plausible resolution lies with the United States. Unconfirmed reports late last year claimed the U.S. Justice Department was in discussions with Meng's lawyers on a plea agreement, whereby she would admit to some wrongdoing and be allowed to return to China.

But those talks, as well as a visit to Washington last spring by Canada’s ambassador to China, ended without any agreement. "I think efforts need to be made to continue to put pressure on Washington to come up with a solution that would result in Mrs. Meng agreeing to a plea bargain," Saint-Jacques said.

If a deal can't be stuck between the U.S. and Meng, Saint-Jacques fears the case could drag on for several more years.

"As Mrs. Meng can avail herself of appeals, we have to be realistic that she could stay in Canada for three or four more years, which means that the Canadians will be in jail for quite some time," he said.

Michael Korvig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla, hasn't seen her husband for more than two-and-a-half years, 1,000 days since his arrest.

"It's difficult to fathom being that cut off, being so removed from everything that he knows," she said.

Nadjibulla said Kovrig is permitted limited access to a small number of books and for a few hours each month he's given a pen and paper to write letters.

Those are then handed to Canadian consular staff, who are permitted brief visits about once a month, though those meetings were restricted for a time during the pandemic.

"So our primary contact remains through consular visits and they're extremely important. They're a lifeline to Michael," she said.

"He has been remarkable. He continues to engage in a daily regimen of exercise. He also meditates, does yoga. A big part of his day is reading books. That is what's really keeping his spirits up, (and) is giving him a window into life outside of his immediate surroundings, which is very bleak."

Though Vina and Kovrig are legally married, they were separated before his arrest. But she has led the family's fight to free the man she affectionately calls 'Our Michael.'

"Even though we're no longer romantically together, he's family, he's someone who means a great deal to me. And out of my love and loyalty, I continue to fight for his freedom and together with the rest of his family and friends and colleagues around the world. And it's a promise I have made to him and it's a promise I intend to keep until the day that he's finally free," she said.

Every day, Kovrig walks 7-thousand steps around his small, windowless concrete cell.

To mark his 1,000th day in detention, Nadjibulla, Spavor's family and their supporters are organizing a solidarity march in Ottawa. On Aug. 5, participants will march from Windsor Park to Major's Hill Park: 7,000 steps, just like Kovrig does every day.

"Here we are 1,000 days into this," Nadjibulla said, "and I sincerely hope that we are at the end, sort of in the final inning of this geopolitical drama, and that Michael will finally be able to come home."

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COMMENTARY: Canada’s policy on China should be an election issue .
According to the 2016 Census, people of Chinese ancestry are the biggest non-European ethnic group in Canada, observes Kevin Chong of UBC Okanagan.Given how little foreign policy seems to matter to Canadian voters, I’m guessing “as little as possible.” That was the case in 2019, and there’s no reason to feel things will change.

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