Michael Kovrig, an adviser with the International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, have been detained in China for a year [File: AP Photo]
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were picked up by the Ministry of State Security on December 10, days after Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition request by the United States in relation to allegations the telecommunications equipment giant breached US sanctions on Iran.
Both men, who are being held in separate locations, have been accused of spying and stealing state secrets.
Neither has yet been allowed to see a lawyer or family members.
Their only contact with the outside world is a roughly once a month visit from Canadian consular officials who exchange messages between them and their loved ones, seek medical treatment for them if needed and help explain the legal process.
“When it comes to China, the government’s absolute priority is the welfare of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained,” Barbara Harvey, spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada told Al Jazeera in an email, adding that the country had raised the men’s continuing detention at the “highest levels” of the Chinese government.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi three days after he took office in November.
The two Canadians are perhaps the most high-profile victims of an opaque security system known as Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) that allows China to hold people for extended periods of time on allegations such as “endangering national security” or “terrorism” without allowing them to meet lawyers or family.
It has been deployed mainly against domestic critics including lawyers and human rights defenders but has also been used against people from Taiwan, Sweden and other countries.
Australia revealed earlier this month that China had detained one of its citizens – Yang Hengjun – in conditions it described as “unacceptable“.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said the former Chinese diplomat turned writer who was charged with espionage in August had been held incommunicado and was interrogated while shackled.
According to Michael Caster, cofounder of Safeguard Defenders, which maintains a database of those held under RSDL, such treatment is common.
He likens the detention of foreigners under RSDL as a form of “hostage diplomacy” that reflects the Communist government’s efforts “to reshape the international rights-based system in its own image”.
China maintains Kovrig and Spavor were not arrested in retaliation for Meng’s arrest and that the two men were held in accordance with the law.
Canada has previous experience of its nationals being held in China.
Christian missionaries Kevin and Julia Garratt, who had lived in the country for 20 years, were accused of spying in 2014.
The couple was picked up after Canada detained Su Bin, a Chinese national accused of stealing military data, on a US extradition request.
In February 2016, Su voluntarily went to the US where he pleaded guilty to the charges. Julia, and later Kevin, were freed and deported the same year.
“In the past, the hope among governments, scholars and business people was that as China became more affluent and more secure internationally it would gradually conform to international norms,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Now the question is what the rest of the world is going to do to compel China’s leadership to comply.”
Some former diplomats are calling on Canada – and other democracies – to be more assertive in their dealings with China.
The US has a Magnitsky Act that allows for targeted sanctions against those suspected of human rights abuses and the European Union passed similar legislation on Monday. Canada, too, has a Magnitsky Act.
Other potential measures include not allowing Chinese athletes to train in Canada, or tightening restrictions on the use of Canadian-made technologies.
“We need to define our own red lines and tell China that we won’t tolerate any behaviour that goes against these red lines,” Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China who recruited Kovrig to the foreign service, told Al Jazeera.
While Canada’s move to rally international support over the two men’s detentions had had some success, Canada needed to reassess its approach, he said.
“Now that we have seen the dark side of China, and knowing what’s happening in Xinjiang and elsewhere, I don’t think it’s possible to go back to where we were in December last year. The message should be that while we welcome investment, you must respect international norms.”
Today marks one year since China arbitrarily detained our colleague Michael Kovrig.
Michael is a Canadian national. He has yet to see a lawyer or his family.
— Crisis Group (@CrisisGroup) December 10, 2019
At the time he disappeared, Kovrig was on leave from the foreign service and working with conflict resolution organisation International Crisis Group.
A “China nerd”, according to friends and colleagues, and a fluent speaker of Mandarin, he often met senior Chinese officials at his base in Hong Kong or on his regular visits to the mainland.
But when Kovrig travelled to Beijing a year ago, it was in the midst of a diplomatic storm triggered by Canada’s arrest of Meng.
Kovrig spoke to Al Jazeera about the implications only four days before he himself disappeared.
“Michael’s work was in no way a threat to China,” said Praveen Madhiraju, Crisis Group’s legal counsel. “He was trying to help the world understand China and make recommendations that would help China contribute to peace and stability in the world.”
Michael Spavor’s work was focussed on North Korea. Based in the northeast city of Dandong, he helped engineer the meeting between leader Kim Jong Un and the colourful former basketball player Dennis Rodman.
People who have been through RSDL told Safeguard Defenders their experience included prolonged periods of solitary confinement, sleeping with the lights on, being guarded around the clock by officers seated inside the cell and even being forced to swallow unknown medications.
Both men are now said to be in regular jails, sharing cells with as many as 20 others.
Beauty of nature
In contrast, Meng Wanzhou is out on bail – wearing an electronic ankle tag and subject to a curfew – and living in one of her two Vancouver mansions.
In a blog posted to the Huawei website at the beginning of the month, she wrote of the kindness with which she had been treated in Canada, the beauty of the changing seasons and the chance to read a book or “carefully complete” an oil painting.
“If a busy life has eaten away at my time, then hardship has in turn drawn it back out,” she wrote.
A decision on Meng’s extradition is unlikely to take place before the middle of next year, and if the judge rules against Meng an appeal could keep the case going for years.
Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a former diplomat with postings in China, North Korea and Cuba, said diplomacy, with Canada stressing its key values, had to continue.
“While I’m cognisant of the shortcomings of the work so far to secure their release, I’m leery of going down the sanctions route with a powerful country like China,” Houlden said. “They can probably hurt us more than we can hurt them. I sense we won’t win that game.”
Crisis Group’s leadership team raises Kovrig’s case with Chinese officials “whenever they can”, Madhiraju said and will continue to work with his family and the government to secure his release. A series of low-key events are planned to mark the year since Kovrig’s detention.
In their cells in China, the two men can do little but wait. And hope.