Michael Spavor and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Photo: Facebook/Michael Spavor).

Soon after Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver two years ago at the behest of U.S. authorities, Chinese state security officers arrested two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. 

It was clear from the get-go the arrest on Dec. 10, 2018, of the Two Michaels, as Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have come to be known in Canada where there is enormous public sympathy for their predicament, was intended by the Chinese government as a message to the government of Canada. 

Canadian Michael Kovrig (Photo: Twitter).

Today, their plight is a cause célèbre. 

Beyond that, though, the narrative is murkier. 

We know why Ms. Meng was chosen for her role. As a senior executive of a huge and successful Chinese high technology company, she was an excellent catch for President Donald Trump’s open plan to use her as a bargaining chip in high-stakes negotiations with China for a trade deal more to his administration’s liking. 

What’s more, Ms. Meng was a resident of Canada and the U.S. authorities seem to have concluded, obviously correctly, that their Canadian counterparts would meekly go along with the dubious scheme to arrest her during a stopover for supposedly ignoring U.S. sanctions against Iran, even though Canada and other Western countries had not enacted similar sanctions. 

But how were the two Michaels chosen? 

After all, the Chinese authorities had more than 300,000 Canadians residing in their country to choose from, most in Hong Kong, but also in many in other centres. Most are Chinese and Canadian dual citizens – status the Chinese government doesn’t recognize.

Moreover, at the time of the Two Michaels’ arrests for espionage, about 200 Canadians were thought to be in custody in China. There was no uproar at home about those prisoners. Indeed, the Canadian government said virtually nothing about them, usually refusing to comment on their cases. 

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole (Photo: Facebook/Erin O’Toole).

Chinese authorities seem never to have used these cases to ratchet up the pressure on Ottawa. A year ago, there were said to be 123 Canadians in Chinese jails, so there is no evidence Canadians are being rounded up as hostages. 

The narrative repeated constantly in Canada and widely accepted is that because of our commitment to the rule of law our country had no choice but to go along with the U.S. extradition request, even though holding Ms. Meng was arguably not in Canada’s interest.

As for the Chinese government’s conduct in the matter of the Two Michaels, we are constantly told China is a totalitarian country not bound by the rule of law. 

Yet the Chinese went all the way to Dandong, which faces North Korea across the Yalu River, to find Mr. Spavor, a North Korea watcher and founder of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which describes itself as “an international non-governmental organization that facilitates sport, culture, tourism and business exchanges with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Mr. Spavor has been described by the BBC as close to North Korea’s dictator, someone who has “sipped cocktails on board … Kim Jong-un’s private yacht.” 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Flickr/Justin Trudeau).

Dandong was also home for 24 years to Kevin and Julia Garratt, the Canadian Christian missionaries and restaurateurs who were arrested in 2014 and held three months on spying charges before being sent back to Canada. 

In January 2017, the New York Times reported, “Peter’s Coffee House, named for one of their sons, quickly became a hub for expatriates, local Chinese curious about the outside world – and state security agents suspicious of the Garratts and their customers, who included the occasional American or Canadian diplomat.” One wonders if Mr. Spavor was among their clients. 

Mr. Kovrig, who was arrested in Beijing, has a resume similar in important respects to Mr. Spavor’s. 

He is a former Canadian diplomat who was stationed in Hong Kong and Beijing, fluent in Mandarin Chinese. In 2017, he joined a non-governmental organization called the International Crisis Group as a senior advisor for North East Asia. 

The ICG describes itself vaguely as “an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.” 

U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

So, regardless of their reality, both men have the kind of backgrounds, jobs and contacts that could plausibly facilitate activities of the sort the Chinese have accused them of conducting.

Clearly the Chinese authorities also looked for Canadians in China who had the kind of connections that would send a much more pointed message than a mere diplomatic note, one that would be understood behind closed doors in Ottawa.

To make the point, in other words, that China was acting in accordance with the rule of law, as opposed to the lawless conduct of the Trump Administration, and by implication its Canadian ally. 

With the lame duck Trump Administration now coming to an end, the Two Michaels remain in custody in Dandong and Beijing, and there is talk in the United States of letting Ms. Meng skip if only she’ll admit a little guilt. 

Yesterday, the Chinese government told Canadian officials the Two Michaels had been “indicted and tried.” Later, they said that was a mistake due to “an inaccurate characterization” by China’s spokeswoman. It seems more likely Beijing intended to increase the pressure on Canada for Ms. Meng’s immediate release as the drama enters its endgame. 

That feeling, presumably, is also what has led conservatives in both Canada and the United States to crank up their hysterical Cold War-style rhetoric attacking China in the past few days, complete with lurid propaganda from neoliberal think tanks on both sides of the border.

This is doubtless motivated in part by genuine fear in Washington of the geopolitical significance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which offers an alternative way for nations in the global south to finance development without the strings associated with such Western institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. 

But it is equally clearly inspired by a cynical short-term desire to weaken conservatives’ political opponents at home – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Canada and the incoming Biden Administration in the United States – by falsely portraying them as “soft on China.”

Listening to the full-court press from Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole is highly ironic considering how hard the Conservatives worked to sign their questionable Foreign Investment Protection Agreement with China in 2014 when Stephen Harper was still prime minister.

In reality, there is not much light between the Trudeau and Harper governments on China.

Also reality is that Conservatives like Mr. O’Toole, sometimes described as Stephen Harper 3.0, surely don’t have the Two Michaels’ interests at heart when they torque up their Trumpian anti-China rhetoric in hopes of wounding Mr. Trudeau. 

Join the Conversation


  1. This is quite a political power play going on. Basically, around 2012, the CPC caved in and did an extradition deal with US president, Barack Obama. We can’t do anything about this now. In relation to China, if someone breaks the law in China, their government won’t take the matter lightly. Also, the CPC were doing deals with China, so they shouldn’t be talking about Justin Trudeau.

    1. Maybe you read the article wrong, but the 2 corrections you wanted to made, are excacly what it said in the article on paragraph 6 and the 3 from last.
      Paragraph 6, it said that it was Iran and the 3 paragraph from last, it said that it happened in 2014. When Harper was still prime minister.

  2. The ICG bills itself as an organization “working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world”. Yuck! Orwellian speak.

    It’s Board of Trustees includes former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a noted hawk and NATO arms lobbyist who pushed hard for International support for the invasion of Iraq while making a killing on the stock market on the side. According to Wikileaks, Bildt lobbied NATO to use Swedish fighters to go on a bombing run in Afghanistan to showcase its capabilities to potential buyers. Imagine if you were an Afghan farmer and seeing your whole family slaughtered as part of a marketing campaign.

    1. Canada is the second largest funder of the International Crisis Group:
      $CAD 4,650,000 for the purpose of “Supporting Inclusive Peace Processes and Political Transitions”. Regime change?

      The ICG says: “We also provide high-level briefings to governments, foundations, individuals and corporations interested in building a more peaceful future. In return, our partners provide essential support for our mission to reverse the devastating spread of war.”
      I guess “our partners” means the donor countries.

      Just “opening lines of communication”, like Maria Butina?

      Searching the ICG website for “China” does not give much (recent) hints about their activities there.

  3. “To make the point, in other words, that China was acting in accordance with the rule of law, as opposed to the lawless conduct of the Trump Administration, and by implication its Canadian ally.”

    You had to twist yourself into double pretzel to come to this conclusion based on no facts.

    I guess the main message here is that its good propagandists arent judges.

    1. Bret: try to keep up. Trump said in public he would trade Meng for a better trade deal with China. That’s gangster tactics – rule of the jungle rather than rule of law. The Chinese arrest of the two Michaels was according to their rule of law. Correlation does not necessarily imply causality. Aside from US policy, there are no legal international sanctions against Iran and Canada has not sanctioned Iran. Canada has no obligation to extradite people who may have broken a foreign law or policy where Canada does not have the same law on the books. For example we have no obligation to extradite a blasphemer to Saudi Arabia or a gay person to Uganda. Is that simple enough for you?

      1. Trump says a lot of things. And we have treaty with the us for these sorts of things. Which is why it’s a no brainer that we followed the rule of law and the Chinese conveniently got captives to batter with.

        1. Bret: you completely missed the point about extradition and laws needing to be symmetrical between two nations to the treaty for it to take effect. Canada has no law on the books sanctioning Iran which was the proximate cause for detaining Ms. Meng. You also do not understand that in the US there is a tradition of the President overriding the law – consider Presidential Pardons or the re-start of executions under Trump.

          1. It is Meng Wanzhou’s position that she should not be extradited because, as Kang puts it, “Canada has no law on the books sanctioning Iran which was the proximate cause for detaining Ms. Meng.” The federal government’s position, however, is that Ms. Meng is actually accused of lying to banks in order to evade US sanctions against Iran and that bank fraud is illegal in both Canada and the US whether or not they have sanctions against the same countries. https://globalnews.ca/news/6445246/meng-wanzhou-extradition-hearing-day-3/

    2. ….and good judges should not be influenced by politicians.

      The main message is that there is way more to this case than the propaganda and nationalistic vitriol coming from the main stream media.

      1. No doubt, however the idea that China is ruled by laws isn’t in doubt. They are. In much the same way as the holodomor was enacted within soviet law. And yes I’m saying that that is bad law.

        1. Good point Bret: those are examples of the rule BY law, not the rule OF law. In Alberta we mostly have the rule BY law. In other words the big bosses change the laws to achieve the ends they want: mostly to steal private farm and ranch land and give away renewable resources to the foreign corporations who put them in office. Any time you hear a Con mewling about how “Parliament is Supreme” that is usually a cover for using the courts and police as muscle for a foreign corporation.

  4. I recall Mr. Harper as our last Conservative PM, started off by talking very tough about China and when it became clear that did not achieve anything, retreating considerably from that position. I doubt he did much lasting damage to Canada from this, other than probably confirming the view of the Chinese that we are not very steadfast in our positions.

    It seems like Mr. O’Toole, who came along some time after as an elected official seems to replaying the tough talk of the early Harper years. Unfortunately, I am not sure if he learned any lessons from this past. I suppose as an opposition leader, it is easy to criticize the current government and tough talk is cheap, particularly when you have no responsibility for anything.

    Now, I suppose current times are a bit different than the early Harper years, when China had different leadership that seemed more restrained. China has more recently alienated and lost a lot of support in the world since then, including in Canada. Mr. O’Toole’s talk is much more politically popular now than Mr. Harper’s was in his early elected years.

    The whole Meng affair is complex. However, I don’t think the Chinese helped their cause any by arresting two Canadians, for whatever reasons, as it has come to be viewed as hostage diplomacy and caused a backlash, particularly in Canada. China seems to aspire to be a great power, but I believe its current aggressive approach is undermining its own goals. Conventional wisdom is the rise of China is inevitable, but history has shown us things do not always work out for rising powers that try to aggressively grab more power on the world stage.

    1. What to do about China communism is definitely hard to ascertain. However I’m pretty sure that thinking rule by truncheon would make things better, probably isn’t a solution.

  5. Let us say it as it is;

    We are holding Ms. Meng Wanzhou hostage on behalf of the US administration. Certain people want us to whisk her away to the US so they can use her as a bargaining chip in their asymmetric war with China and/or lock her up for a very long time.

    We started this mess by seizing her in the first place and we are the ones who will face the most consequences – in China there is enormous public sympathy for the plight of Ms. Meng. Once we send her to the US, Canada will have absolutely no control of the situation. We have to figure out how to get out of this ourselves and not just give the US what it wants because that would not be the end of it for us.

  6. Hi David – thanks for this article.

    From the few items I have been able to glean on this issue, it is fairly clear that the ICG is not a neutral player. It is possible that the two Michaels were innocent … but it is also possible that they breached Chinese law as well. Certainly they were picked up for reasons which made sense to the Chinese, while the MANY other Canadians in China were left to carry on as usual. The efforts of the Conservatives to imitate the Trump Republicans in every way possible, to ignore the history of their party’s questionable ethics vis-a-vis China, and to attempt to further the propaganda messages regarding Ms. Meng are shameful.

    As for Bret Larson’s comment above … wow. Not to acknowledge that the Trump administration has violated a plethora of laws, the U.S. Constitution, and acted amorally (viz perpetuating racism) since its inception, is amazing.

    At any rate, thank you again for this article, David.

  7. That has always been an interesting question? Why the two Michaels? Perhaps they had better connections within Canada. Perhaps they had done something the Chinese government felt was wrong and they weren’t drug dealers. They weren’t drug dealers and they looked good. Whatever the reason I’m sure China did it because they thought they had a case of some sort and they wanted leverage to get Ms. Meng back. Canada making extra efforts to get drug dealers back, well it’s just not so newsworthy.

    In my opinion, it’s a fair trade, two Michaels for Ms. Meng. Just because the U.S.A. isn’t keen on another country (Iran) doesn’t mean Canada has to agree. I’d suggest whether we get the two Michaels back immediately or not, we let Ms. Meng go home. Perhaps Canada could trade her for some of the political dissidents from Hong Kong. There really isn’t any gain to keep her here. Trump used her as a leverage, as has been pointed out several times After the deal with Iran was made, the President of Iran went to the E.U. on a very large shopping trip to purchase medicine, medical equipment and jets. Then suddenly Trump has his knickers/diaper in a knot and imposes new rules. There is no reason we have to play along with them.

    I’m not a fan of the Chinese government, but holding Ms. Meng does nothing for anybody but Trump and his gang of thugs. Tell them its an early New Year’s present.

  8. Unfortunately Bret Larson hasn’t learned that there is a huge difference between a true conservative and a Reformer pretending to be a conservative like Liberal Ralph Klein did and Liberal Jason Kenney is doing. Voting blindly for the conservative name is why were are in this mess. Don Getty told me in 2003 that inviting Liberal Ralph Klein into the Conservative party was dumbest thing he ever did and I certainly agreed.
    The tue conservatives in my world have seen enough of these Reform Party losers who just don’t get it but just keep on trying to spread their lies.
    Their only solution to the financial mess we are is to blame it on someone else. Beating up on Ottawa , doctors, nurses, teachers, AISH recipients and make believe corporations attacking our oil industry proves how stupid they are.
    Their lie that we don’t have a revenue problem , only a spending problem isn’t being believed anymore, except by guys like Larson. While they continue to give away billions in oil royalties they increase tax breaks for their rich friends and we are suppose to be dumb enough to accept it, like their supporters do. Apparently Larson hasn’t realized how badly these Reform Party losers have done at the polls.
    The body count just keeps adding up Stephen Harper,Preston Manning, Danielle Smith, Brian Jean, Andrew Scheer , Jim Prentice, all have one thing in common lost elections and it looks like the premier of Manitoba will be next and Kenney will be in Alberta, from what we are hearing.
    Maybe guys like Larson should keep their ignorant comments to themselves we know what these phoney conservatives have done to us and it’s my understanding that farmers and ranchers whose land has been rendered worthless due to this abandon well mess are looking for people to sue and why shouldn’t they?
    Maybe Larson and all these other Kenney supporters should google this and get themselves educated
    “ W5 : Inactive oil wells abandoned across Alberta “

    1. Just cause you asked. I’m pretty much a libertarian. I believe big government and the toadies it accumulates are poison to a healthy society. Not sure how that relates to your trip down memory lane, but barbs directed towards some sort of conservative ideal will not resonate.

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