China’s Long History of Punishing People Who Didn’t Commit Crimes

China’s Long History of Punishing People Who Didn’t Commit Crimes

Mark Fitzpatrick

Security, Asia


Beijing’s part-time hobbies include building “silk” roads and arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals.

A T-shirt-clad young man came to my think tank in London five years ago to discuss North Korea. As an organizer of tours to the hermit kingdom from his base in Dandong, China, he was a “fixer” for basketball star Dennis Rodman’s visits to the country.  He told me about an occasion at leader Kim Jong-un’s beach villa where he found himself talking with Kim alone after Rodman had gotten bored and left the conversation to go play basketball. I asked if he had debriefed these stories and his impressions of Kim to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  “No,” the young man replied. “Why not?” I asked. “I am Canadian,” he explained.

Today, my T-shirt clad friend, Michael Spavor, languishes in a Chinese jail. Why? Because he is Canadian.

Spavor was arrested on December 10, 2018, on allegations that he had endangered China’s security. Two days earlier, fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig was jailed on similar grounds. Kovrig is a Canadian diplomat on leave to work with the acclaimed International Crisis Group in Hong Kong. In May, the two were formally accused of stealing state secrets for a foreign organization, a charge that can bring the death penalty.

It seems obvious that the two Michaels were not jailed for committing crimes; instead, they are hostages. A few days earlier, Canadian authorities had detained Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver Airport over an arrest warrant by the United States. She was charged with thirteen bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy charges in evading U.S. sanctions against Iran. China is clearly using Spavor and Kovrig as trade bait in an effort to persuade Canada not to extradite Meng to the United States.

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