Canada the biggest loser in Meng Wanzhou saga?

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou returned to China over the weekend to much fanfare. The swift end to this incident after almost three years and the release of two Canadians who had been detained in China point to political machinations behind the scenes. Is this ending just a stalemate running its course or does it signify a restart of China-US and China-Canada relations?
Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of a charter plane at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, 25 September 2021. (Jin Liwang/Xinhua via Reuters)
Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of a charter plane at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, 25 September 2021. (Jin Liwang/Xinhua via Reuters)

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou made a triumphant return to Shenzhen on 25 September, receiving a warm welcome from the Chinese. Meng’s three-year battle has finally come to an end. 

In December 2018, Meng was arrested by Canadian police when she was in transit. The authorities claimed that Meng had violated US law and it was detaining Meng under its extradition treaty with the US. This was ostensibly purely a legal matter and had nothing to do with politics. Soon after, the US requested the extradition of Meng to the US on fraud charges.

At that time, China emphasised that Canada’s and by extension the US’s arrest and extradition of Meng was a case of political persecution against Chinese citizens aimed at suppressing China’s high-tech enterprises. China insisted that the US and Canadian authorities had to acquit Meng of all charges and let her go.

A political deal

Over 1,000 days of legal and diplomatic struggles later, Meng finally returned home safely. While it seems as if Meng regained her freedom via legal means, the conclusion of Meng’s case is actually the result of the political battle between China, the US and Canada.    

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, delivers a statement to members of the media without a GPS ankle monitor as she exits provincial court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on 24 September 2021. (Jimmy Jeong/Bloomberg)
Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, delivers a statement to members of the media without a GPS ankle monitor as she exits provincial court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on 24 September 2021. (Jimmy Jeong/Bloomberg)

Shortly after Meng was detained, then US President Donald Trump publicly associated Meng’s case with the China-US trade deal and said that he would intervene in the case if necessary. During the China-US talks in Tianjin in July this year, China put forward two lists to the US. One was a list of individual cases that China had concerns with, which included a call for Meng’s extradition request to be revoked. On the 1,000th day of Meng’s detention, Chinese ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu spoke on the phone with Meng, stressing that they “will keep urging the Canadian side to face up to its own serious mistakes” and “make the right decision to release you as soon as possible”. Ambassador Cong also asked Meng to “shore up confidence”. 

Looking back, it seems that the reason why Cong asked Meng to “shore up confidence” was because political negotiations between China, the US and Canada around Meng Wanzhou were coming to an end. On 24 September, Meng affirmed the veracity of a “statement of facts” that was submitted to a Brooklyn court via a video hearing. A few hours later, the Canadian authorities released her and she boarded a chartered plane back to China. This Air China chartered plane had arrived in Canada two days prior.   

An Air China flight bound for Shenzhen, believed to be carrying Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, takes off from Vancouver International Aiport in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, 24 September 2021. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)
An Air China flight bound for Shenzhen, believed to be carrying Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, takes off from Vancouver International Aiport in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, 24 September 2021. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

After Meng boarded the plane, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians whom China had detained soon after Meng’s arrest, also left China by plane and returned to Canada. Kovrig and Spavor were personally received by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the airport.   

These arrangements indicate that Meng’s release is final. Her attendance at the Brooklyn court hearing in which a judge accepted a deferred prosecution agreement was just pro forma. The legal procedures that Kovrig and Spavor — regarded by the Canadian government as hostages — were subjected to were not disclosed by Chinese officials, but the two men were released nonetheless. China’s actions indirectly confirm that Meng’s case is a political incident that can only be resolved through a political exchange of nationals detained by both sides.

This was a precedent rarely seen since the Cold War, where China broke through US long-arm jurisdiction.

Giving Chinese nationalism a boost

Chinese state media People's Daily ran a commentary on 26 September saying that Meng’s return was the result of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s strong leadership and the untiring efforts of the Chinese government, as well as the firm support of the entire country, and a major victory for the Chinese people.

This conclusion is not without merit. Chinese online opinions generally see Meng’s return as a win for China, while CCTV and other state media showed live broadcasts of Meng’s return. Meng’s heartfelt essay of thanks — published on Weibo while on her way back to China — moved countless readers, with some netizens even suggesting that the text be included in secondary school textbooks. At Shenzhen Airport, the red-clad Meng gave a short, dignified speech, while the crowds at the airport spontaneously broke into patriotic songs, and the skyscrapers in Shenzhen livened the atmosphere with “Welcome home, Meng Wanzhou” flashing on their facades.

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Supporters wave Chinese national flags as they wait for the arrival of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen on 25 September 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)

It is no exaggeration to say that Meng’s return was a lesson in patriotism for the Chinese people; the efforts by the Chinese government to get Meng back has paid off in spades. Besides, while Meng acknowledged the truth of the US allegations against her, she never admitted guilt or paid any fines. This was a precedent rarely seen since the Cold War, where China broke through US long-arm jurisdiction.

Of course, the US did not emerge empty-handed from the incident, as it now has evidence of Huawei violating US long-arm jurisdiction, paving the way for more containment of Huawei.

US Republican senator Marco Rubio said Meng’s sudden release was “another example of the Biden administration's dangerously soft approach towards Beijing.” Another Republican senator Bill Hagerty also criticised it as more capitulation to China. Public opinion in the US also does not interpret Meng’s release as a US victory.

Of course, the US did not emerge empty-handed from the incident, as it now has evidence of Huawei violating US long-arm jurisdiction, paving the way for more containment of Huawei.

But even without this evidence, the US would not hold back with Huawei. Not only does the US want to totally chase Huawei out of the US market, but it will also continue with its global containment of Huawei. The Meng incident is a result of US containment of Huawei, not the cause of it.

...the political tussle brought Canada’s judicial independence and official statements into question

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Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, accompanied by Canada's ambassador to China, Domenic Barton, are greeted on arrival by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being released from detention in China, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 25 September 2021. (DND-MDN Canada/Handout via Reuters)

Canada may be the biggest loser in the Meng incident. Soon after Canada detained Meng, Kovrig and Spavor were arrested as spies in China, after which the Canadian government faced the pressure of fruitless efforts to get China to release the two men, while Canada-China relations hit a low. Although Meng’s release also resulted in Kovrig and Spavor returning to Canada, the political tussle brought Canada’s judicial independence and official statements into question, while people sympathised with the situation of Kovrig and Spavor and their families, as they did with Meng and her family, over the past couple of years.

The Meng incident is at an end, and the burden is off for China, the US and Canada, providing a fresh opportunity to restart China-US and China-Canada relations. But in the context of China-US opposition, whether both sides will take this opportunity depends on whether China and the US will continue to show more mutual friendliness.

Related: Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou: Politics rather than law may decide her fate | The waiting game: Will Huawei's Meng Wanzhou return home soon? | Huawei's Meng Wanzhou: Can Canada rectify a bad start? | Meng Wanzhou: Your warmth lights my path