Keeping Up with Frank

Chinese Government Needs Friends – People Who Are a Lot Like the Canadians it Has Detained

December 27, 2018

Anyone watching the news about my fellow Canadians – researcher Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, held against their will in China – would be justified in having second thoughts about working in the country.

It has now been two weeks since China’s state security whisked the two away to undisclosed locations. Neither one has been allowed to see a lawyer or a loved one. According to press reports, both are being subjected daily to several lengthy interrogations and kept in permanently lit cells, an inexcusable form of pressure.

Mr. Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization that I have proudly supported for years. I am baffled by the allegations Chinese officials make against him – that he is somehow “endangering China’s national security.” Mr. Kovrig’s work – as anyone bothering to check it out would know – involves analysis of Chinese engagement with conflict-affected countries where Crisis Group advocates policies that advance peace, an approach congruent with China’s foreign policy. To conduct his research, he meets openly with China’s officials, analysts and academics to understand China’s perspectives on global affairs. His writings are published on Crisis Group’s website for all to see.

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, right. 

He left the Canadian foreign service two years ago to join Crisis Group as its senior advisor for North East Asia because he loves China and wanted to stay there rather than be assigned elsewhere. He speaks Mandarin and is committed to learning about Chinese culture. In his work for Crisis Group, he takes great pains to explain what Chinese foreign policy is about and why China is an important actor in so many places around the world. China needs to embrace friends like Michael – not put them in jail.

The Canadian government believes China is using both Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as pawns in a geopolitical controversy involving the Chinese corporation Huawei after Canada honoured a U.S. request to detain Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for possible extradition. She has since been released on bail.

If true – and so far, Chinese authorities have offered no credible alternative explanation – these retaliatory detentions of two Canadians would be extremely worrying.

European Union and United States also demanding release

No country, certainly not a major power that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and aspires to play a leading role in world affairs, should incarcerate innocent citizens of foreign countries to gain leverage in international affairs. Great nations embrace that foundation of international relations. Two of China’s largest trading partners – the United States and the European Union, with individual appeals from Britain, Germany and France – have announced that they stand by this important principle and are now demanding the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and offers intriguing opportunities for business leaders and entrepreneurs such as myself. As a philanthropist, I have supported International Crisis Group’s long-standing efforts to engage China and bring Chinese perspectives – including some of China’s successful models to alleviate poverty for hundreds of millions – into our conflict-prevention work.

And China has shown a desire to contribute to peace and development at a global level. Beijing has played a positive role during the nuclear crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, and it has taken increasing responsibility in UN peacekeeping missions, providing more troops to stabilize South Sudan or Mali than any of the five permanent members of the Security Council. China also has a pivotal role to play in achieving the climate-change ambitions of the Paris agreement.

Unjustified detention sends destructive signal

But the unjustified detention of my countrymen hurts China’s global stature and sends a destructive signal to everyone who wants to build bridges. It will discourage academics, members of the business community and others from visiting and engaging with the country, impacting China’s appeal for wider investment and international engagement. And it strains the long-standing friendship between our two countries, nurtured by Canada for decades – often at times when others were ostracizing China.

As one of the world’s great powers, China would show its wisdom in international affairs if it had already completed its investigation, which should reinforce my and my government’s conclusion that it holds in confinement two honourable professionals and friends of China – who must be sent home to their families immediately.

This opinion piece was published in The Globe and Mail on Dec. 24, 2018