There’s no easy way out in the darkening diplomatic feud between China and Canada over the detention of a Huawei executive – even as a man’s life now hangs on the outcome.
Beijing has repeatedly proven over the last two years that it is willing to play hardball with international partners which it believes have tried to undermine China’s national interest.
But re-sentencing a Canadian found guilty of drug smuggling in China to death is a dramatic escalation which could undermine the Chinese government’s global standing in the future.
“(The decision) is denting China’s international reputation in the long term. So even in the short term it could look tough and strong, I think in the long term it is paying a huge cost,” Lynette Ong, political science professor at the University of Toronto, told CNN.
The Chinese government and its state-run media have been raging since Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was taken into custody by Canadian authorities to face extradition to the US over alleged Iran sanction violations on December 1.
Shortly after Meng’s arrest, two Canadians were placed in Chinese detention, vanishing into the system without explanation, before later being given consular assistance. Then on Monday, Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was retried and sentenced to death over drug smuggling charges in a one-day trial in Dalian.
Beijing has explicitly denied links between Meng’s situation and the legal action against Canadians in China, but the legal team for Schellenberg said it was only after the Huawei arrest that they started to see actions taken against their client.
With the Chinese government refusing to back down on the arrests and Canada unable to interfere in its country’s independent legal system, there are now few options left to de-escalate the growing crisis.
‘Beijing needs to remind them’
Beijing may not have explicitly linked its actions to Meng’s arrest, but the furious behavior of state media and Chinese diplomats have made the connection plain.
In an editorial on Tuesday night, China’s state-run Global Times tabloid said that if countries forgot Chinese laws and interests should be respected, “Beijing needs to remind them.”
The publication’s editor, Hu Xijin, said in a video posted to its website in December that if Canada extradited Meng to the US, “China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”
Most damning of all, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, wrote in an opinion piece published in early January that the arrests of the two Canadians – ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – was “self-defense.”
Ong said it wasn’t just a sense of outrage driving the Communist Party leadership – Beijing also wanted to appear tough at a time when it faced growing problems at home and abroad, including a slowing economy and a trade war with the United States.
“China doesn’t want to look weak … partially for domestic reasons it needs to assure its strong leadership. There are people in China who are unhappy with the arrest of Meng which is why (the government) has been very, very tough against Canada,” she said.
But Ong said that in the process, Beijing has allowed the Meng case to blow out from a dispute between China and Canada to a broader one between China and the Western world.
As Hudson Institute senior fellow John Lee wrote for CNN on Wednesday, China is a “growing but lonely rising power” and can’t afford to be estranging other countries so readily.
“(China) is widely distrusted. It has few enduring allies and supporters. It could be bad faith or bad timing. But sentencing a Canadian to death has only raised collective suspicion and deepened its isolation,” Lee wrote.
Major Chinese trading partner Australia was just one of the countries to voice concern over the death sentence.
“We expect at a level of principle that not only the death penalty should not be applied but also wherever people are in trouble the rule of law ought be applied fairly,” Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC Radio National Wednesday. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the matter with the leaders of Argentina and New Zealand.
In December, the US State Department also expressed concern over the detention of the two Canadians. “We share Canada’s commitment to the rule of law as fundamental to all free societies, and we will defend and uphold this principle,” the statement said.
But Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying was unrepentant on Wednesday. “Canada’s so-called allies, which can be counted with 10 fingers, can not represent the international society at all,” she said.
US to the rescue?
One of the few possible amicable resolutions to the dispute between Canada and China might involve the United States.
Ong said if Washington was to drop the extradition request and charges against Meng, Canada would release her and China could relax its grip on Canadians inside its borders.
“This is not something that Canada can actually do because the request came from the US and the Canadian government cannot intervene in judicial processes. It has to come from the United States,” she said.
But it won’t be Beijing which is putting pressure on the US to drop the charges – at least not explicitly as it’s doing with Canada.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government is anxious to ensure that the current trade talks with the United States are successful, hoping a deal will boost the country’s flagging economy and stem consumer worries.
The desire for a quick deal with Washington to remove trade tariffs is part of why Beijing has been hammering Ottawa on Meng’s detention – despite the arrest being a US request in the first place.
However at this stage it appears more likely that China will simply keep trying to force Canada’s hand ahead of Meng’s trial in February. And if it doesn’t get its way, this could spell disaster for Schellenberg and his family.
“In a country such as China, where there is no semblance of the rule of law or the independence of the judiciary, there can be no fair trials, and this is why the death penalty is so appalling,” human rights advocate Michael Caster told CNN Tuesday.
“In all cases – but even more so when it is applied politically and as a threat to another country.”