China frees two Canadians after Huawei CFO flies home, ending diplomatic row

September 25, 2021

TORONTO — A diplomatic row between China and the West appears to be ending, after the release of two Canadians held in China and a Chinese tech executive in Canada. Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, arrested on a US warrant in 2018, left Canada on Friday in a deal with US prosecutors.

Hours later it was announced that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, accused of espionage by China in the same year, were flying home to Canada. Beijing denies detaining the Canadians in retaliation for Meng's arrest. But critics have accused China of using them as political bargaining chips.

The two men had maintained their innocence throughout. At a news conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said they had been through "an unbelievably difficult ordeal".

"It is good news for all of us that they are on their way home to their families," he added. "For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace."

The prime minister said the men are being accompanied by Dominic Barton, Canada's ambassador to China.

Before her release, Meng — the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the billionaire founder of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei — admitted misleading US investigators about Huawei's business dealings in Iran. She spent three years under house arrest in Canada while fighting extradition to the United States.

Speaking after the executive's release, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the charges against Meng were fabricated. State media quoted Hua Chunying as saying the case was "act of political persecution against Chinese citizens".

The US government welcomed evening China's decision to release the two Canadian citizens, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday. "We are pleased that they are returning home to Canada," Blinken said in a statement.

The seemingly intractable impasse came to a rapid resolution Friday after Meng struck a deferred prosecution agreement with US authorities to resolve criminal charges against her. Within hours, the Supreme Court of British Columbia discharged her and Meng immediately left for the airport to board a chartered Air China flight back to Shenzhen, home to the Chinese technology giant’s headquarters.

Shortly after, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the two Michaels, as they are known in Canada, were also on their way home. “There is going to be time for reflections and analysis in the coming days and weeks,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “But the fact of the matter is I know that Canadians will be incredibly happy to know that right now, this Friday night, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are on a plane and they’re coming home.”

The long-running case became a symbol of the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, throwing into stark relief the risk faced by those who get caught in the middle. Within days of her arrest, Chinese authorities jailed the two Canadians, triggering a diplomatic showdown that has cost billions of dollars in lost trade and plunged bilateral relations to their worst point in decades.

In China, the subject of Meng’s return trended on social media Saturday, attracting more than 110 million views on the country’s Twitter-like website Weibo.

The Communist Party’s People’s Daily said in a Weibo post that it was because of China’s “relentless efforts,” while Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin said in a post that he hoped Meng’s release could help thaw China’s relationship with Canada and improve ties with the US.

Spavor, a Canadian tour organizer, was sentenced last month to 11 years for spying. There had not yet been a verdict for Kovrig — a Hong Kong-based analyst at the International Crisis Group and former Canadian diplomat — who was arrested the same day as Spavor. The two men were detained more than 1,000 days. — Agencies

September 25, 2021
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