There are occasions when even in the most serious of geopolitical situations, prominent diplomats utter statements so absurd that one could be excused for thinking that they took place within the framework of a sketch comedy routine rather than an international press conference. But when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stood beside his Canadian counterpart and demanded that China release two Canadian citizens recently arrested due to business related violations of the law, one would require a heart of stone not to laugh.
China’s Foreign Ministry last week confirmed the arrest of Canadian national Michael Spavor. Spavor is a businessman who is perhaps most famous for organising tours of the DPRK (North Korea) for westerners. Spavor met with DPRK leader Kim Jong-un long before Donald Trump ever did and reportedly helped to arrange some of American basketball star Dennis Rodman’s goodwill visits to Pyongyang. Spavor’s arrest occurred on the same day that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was also arrested in China for conducting business activities on Chinese soil without the proper legal permissions.
The arrests of relatively high profile Canadians in China has been interpreted by some as an attempt by Beijing to put pressure on Ottawa in respect of releasing the political prisoner Meng Wanzhou who is currently out on bail in Vancouver. If this pattern of Canadians being detained in China continues, it may become impossible for Ottawa to reject a rational quid pro quo in respect of releasing Meng in exchange for the freedom of Canadians in China. However, prominent Chinese journalist Hu Xijin has offered a slightly different analysis:
No evidence suggests this is Chinese government's retaliation. Public opinion made such speculation only because Canada has gone too far and people naturally think China will retaliate. The highly sensitive situation stemmed from Canada arresting Meng Wanzhou. pic.twitter.com/5EM5yFCTYb
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) December 11, 2018
Whether retaliatory or otherwise, the longstanding concept of a diplomatic prisoner exchange clearly comes into play as Canada continues to disallow the bailed political prisoner, Chinese national and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou from departing Canada. And yet in spite of this, Pompeo sternly demanded that China release Spavor and Kovrig while joining his Canadian counterpart in overtly supporting the continued detention of Meng by Canadian authorities who refuse to grant her full and unequivocal freedom as an innocent woman, while at the same time, the US continues to seek her penultimate extradition south of the border.
Although political double-standards are nothing novel, the overt double standards invoked by Pompeo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland were nothing short of shocking. As many in Canada and the US have already drawn the conclusion that the arrests of the two Canadians in China constituted retribution for the kidnapping and detention of Meng, Pompeo and his colleagues are violating the logic of their own narrative by claiming that somehow the freedom of two Canadians arrested in China is more important than a Chinese woman arbitrarily detained in Canada. Clearly, the concept of a quid-pro-quo that Donald Trump himself invoked within the context of “trading” Meng for what he considers a favourable trade deal with China was lost on the stone faced Pompeo and Freeland.
Taken in totality, it would appear that just when it seemed that the US-Canada alliance could not lose any further moral and ethical ground, it still has some ways to sink.
While Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was ambushed and murdered shortly after he entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul on the 2nd of October, just under two months later on the 1st of December, the US did something to an innocent Chinese businesswoman that in terms of its deviousness, seriousness and wickedness was highly comparable to what Saudi authorities did to Khashoggi. While Meng is luckily still alive, this is largely where the contextual differences between the two incidents end.
In the weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, Donald Trump spoke off the cuff to journalists and said that the Saudi journalist’s murder was “the worst cover-up in history”. At the time Trump spoke those words he may well have been correct – but he is not correct any longer. Now the infamous distinction of staging the worst cover-up in history belongs to the United States. This is the case because it was US authorities that orchestrated the kidnapping and detention of Meng Wanzhou within the framework of such a laughable cover-up that one might suspect it was organised by someone with the mind of a fool and the heart of a knave.
While Meng was detained in Vancouver, Canada on the 1st of December as Donald Trump and his closest advisers was meeting to discuss trade issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his closest comrades, the wider world did not know of Meng’s plight until several days later because of an attempt by the Canadian authorities to force the local press to suppress the story in a clear affront to normal journalist standards in North America. When the wider world found out that a prominent Chinese businesswoman who is the CFO of the world’s largest smartphone marker Huawei was kidnapped and detained by Canadian authorities on the order of the United States regarding “allegations” that her company has subsidiaries that had traded products with China’s well known Iranian partners, it became clear that an innocent woman’s freedom was deprived for purely political reasons and thus Meng became the first human casualty of the US instigated trade war against China.
While both Canadian and US authorities claimed that the move was a judicially rather than a politically motivated action, US National Security Adviser John Bolton changed the story by claiming it was a geo-political issue of national security coordinated between an overtly politicised intelligence/security sector and judicial officials. Bolton (a political figure) then admitted that he was aware of what was being planned even before Meng was seized at an airport in western Canada. Days later, Donald Trump let the cat fully out of the bag when he stated that if the US and China reach what he considers a favourable trade deal, he may order Meng to be set free. All of this must have left a great deal of egg on Justin Trudeau’s face after his government ran out of the gates claiming that Meng’s detention was apolitical.
The changing stories of US and Canadian officials regarding Meng is highly reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s string of changing explanations for what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. First Riyadh said that Jamal Khashoggi had walked out of the consulate alive and well. Then they said that the middle aged journalist of an average build picked a fight with several men younger and more physically fit than he and accidentally died in the scuffle. Finally, they admitted that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate as the Turkish government continued to make public the grim findings of their investigation into the murder.
While Trump has let the penny drop regarding what the rest of the world always knew was the clear political imprisonment of an innocent woman, public opinion in Canada appears to be turning against Washington over the matter in the same way that after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was revealed by Turkey, many sectors of public option in the western world and parts of the Middle East turned against Saudi Arabia.
Canada’s Globe and mail newspaper is about as middle of the road/mainstream media as one can get in Canada and as of the 14th of September, its opinion section is filled with no less than two editorials that are pro-Meng and anti-US. While a third editorial printed was anti-China, it cannot be ignored that 2/3rds of the China related editorials in a mainstream Canadian media outlet were pro-Meng.
Furthermore, on social media it would appear that more and more Canadians are expressing their shame at the fact that their government so readily capitulated to Washington on a matter regarding the violation of an innocent woman’s human rights. Apart from elements of Canada’s social media that are dominated by pro-Taipei agitators and old fashioned John Birch style anti-communists, many average Canadians with no previously held strong views about China feel that Ottawa behaved shamefully for kowtowing to the United States on an issue that has gained Canada nothing from the people of China other than a boycott of Canadian goods that has been organised by ordinary Chinese on social media.
Just as many in Europe and the US started to question the loyalty of their leaders to the Saudi establishment in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, many Canadians are doing the same in respect of Justin Trudeau’s government’s closeness with that of Donald Trump and the broader US security-industrial complex.
Beyond this, just as the Saudi orchestrated murder of Khashoggi was something of an own goal at a time when the leadership in Riyadh want to present the world an image of a kinder, gentler, less anti-woman and less religiously extreme version of Saudi Arabia, so too have the American and Canadian governments scored an own goal over Meng. While the US and many media outlets in Canada continue to run statements criticising the human rights of individuals in parts of China they know little about and have done so without understanding the realities of the matters on which they speak, now that the US and Canada have conspired to imprison an innocent woman for admittedly political reasons while depriving her of much needed medical assistance prior to her temporary release on bail – it would appear that the US and Canada now need to account for their blatant human rights violations that have been compounded by a cover-up that would make even Jamal Khashoggi’s killers blush.
Thus, while officials in Washington such as Nikki Haley may feign disgust at the murder of a Saudi journalist who committed no crime, the US is guilty of doing something almost identical to an equally innocent Chinese woman whose fate continues to hang in the balance even after Trump accidentally exposed his nation’s own worst cover-up in history.
Now that the US and Canada have demanded the release of the two Canadians in China while jingoistically defending their treatment of Meng, it is clear that Canada and the United States have forfeited what remained of their global moral authority.