Canadians Are Released After A Chinese Executive Resolves U.S. Criminal Charges

Sep 25, 2021
Originally published on September 25, 2021 9:35 am

Updated September 25, 2021 at 2:27 AM ET

BEIJING — China has released two imprisoned Canadian men in exchange for a Chinese Huawei executive detained in Canada, ending a more than 1,000-day ordeal that helped tank U.S.-China relations.

"These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference held shortly after the two Michaels, as they are called, departed China. "For the past thousand days they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace, and we are all inspired by that."

Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig left Chinese air space on a plane accompanied by the Canadian ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, at around the same time Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer, flew back to China.

Canadian diplomats said the two Michaels were in high spirits but had lost significant amounts of weight during their time in Chinese detention. Spavor is being flown to Calgary, while Kovrig will continue onward to Toronto.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement "we are pleased that [the two Canadian men] are returning home to Canada."

Spavor and Kovrig were suddenly detained in December 2018 on espionage charges, shortly after the U.S. ordered Canada to detain Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei's founder, on suspicion that she had broken American sanctions on Iran.

The detentions signaled the beginning of an ongoing showdown between the U.S. and China over technology standards and dominance over critical semiconductor components. The U.S. maintains sanctions on the Chinese telecom firm and briefly sanctioned of its major suppliers, the Chinese company ZTE. Last May, the U.S. went one step further, barring companies from selling semiconductors to Huawei if the products were made using American technology.

China has repeatedly denied that their arrest of the two Canadian men was in any way linked to Meng's detention but the timing of their mutual releases underscores the high-stakes game of hostage diplomacy between the U.S., China, and Canada.

Their exchange was a breakthrough enabled by a deal brokered by the U.S. Department of Justice. In a virtual court hearing Friday, Meng pleaded not guilty to charges of bank and wire fraud, but did acknowledge that she misled some financial institutions about Huawei's dealings with Iran. As part of the deal, federal prosecutors will defer prosecution, and if she complies with all of the obligations under that deal, the U.S. will drop the charges against her in just over a year.

China held both men incommunicado and tried both of them in closed trials. Spavor was given an 11-year sentence in August; Kovrig was still awaiting a verdict at the time of his release.

Meng, on the other hand, was allowed to reside in her Vancouver mansion and roam the city for private dinners and shopping sprees at boutique outlets while sporting an ankle monitor, outings eagerly documented by the Canadian tabloids.

NPR's Jackie Northam contributed to this report.

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Late last night, China released two Canadian businessmen who had been imprisoned in China for more than a thousand days at almost the same moment Canada released an executive of the Chinese company Huawei Technologies. NPR's Emily Feng joins us now from Beijing. Emily, thanks for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Of course, you've been covering this story from the beginning. But let's remind ourselves, how did this Chinese executive and these two Canadian men wind up being detained? And how did their cases become mixed?

FENG: It all started December 2018. That's when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, who is the chief financial officer for Huawei. The U.S. suspected her of violating Iran sanctions, so they asked Canada to arrest Meng because she was flying through the country. She was later arraigned for committing bank and wire fraud. Since then, the U.S. has been fighting this legal battle to have her extradited from Canada to the U.S. to stand trial. But in December, within days of Meng being detained, China then took Michael Kovrig in Beijing and Michael Spavor in Dandong - which is a Chinese border city with North Korea - into detention.

These two men were later charged with espionage, and they were tried in closed trials, which I tried to go to and was not allowed to attend. Spavor got an 11-year sentence. So the two cases seemed very connected, but China repeatedly denied that they had any connection to one another. But as you point out, basically, precisely the same time Meng was released Friday U.S. time, she boarded a plane back to China, and then two Michaels, as they're now called, were released from China.

SIMON: How did Canada, China and the U.S. wind up apparently resolving this?

FENG: Canadian diplomats tell me they've been negotiating for the two Michaels release since last November. They essentially were arranging a hostage swap. They had the U.S. Department of Justice step in, who helped broker this deal. And as part of their agreement, Meng confessed in court this week to misleading banks so that Huawei, the Chinese telecom firm she works for and which her father founded, could sell equipment to Iran in violation of American sanctions. But as soon as she confessed to this, the U.S. Department of Justice dropped its extradition request. It agreed that as long as she does not commit wire or bank fraud in the near future, the charges against her will be dropped within a year. Then Meng could go home, China would have to release the two Michaels, and that is precisely what's happened today.

SIMON: What effect did this have on relations between China, the U.S. and Canada? And where does the Huawei investigation go from here?

FENG: These detentions really kicked off a low point in China's relations with the U.S. and China and also - I'm sorry, China's relations with the U.S. and also China's relations with Canada, which got mixed up in all of this. It also marked this technology rivalry between the U.S. and China over dominance in 5G technology, which is the next generation of mobile communications, and also semiconductor chips, these tiny components that go into all of our electronic devices. The U.S. continues to apply sanctions on Huawei that denied access to technological components. And although Meng will not have charges against her in the future, she did sign off on what's called a deferred prosecution agreement, admitting that she lied to banks. And so that information will be used in future cases against Huawei.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng speaking with us from Beijing. Emily, thanks so much for being with us.

FENG: Thanks, Scott.

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