How serious is China about putting Canada in its place over the Huawei affair? In the words of legal scholar Donald Clarke, it’s deadly serious – quite literally.
That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn in the wake of the death sentence pronounced with extraordinary haste on a Canadian citizen convicted of drug smuggling in China. Everything we know about the case points to this most recent development being yet another escalation by China in its campaign of retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior executive of telecom giant Huawei in Vancouver as a result of an extradition request by U.S. authorities.
Almost immediately after the executive, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested the Chinese arbitrarily detained two Canadians on suspicion of endangering China’s national security, without presenting any evidence of such crimes.
Now a Chinese court has passed a death sentence on another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, whose case has been slowly wending its way through the judicial system there for more than four years.
There had been no publicity about that case, but now that Canada and China are locked in their bitter dispute over the arrest of Meng, it has been vaulted into the public eye. Schellenberg was sentenced to 15 years in prison in November, but in December a Chinese court sent his case back for retrial. The customary legal delays magically vanished; within mere hours this week Schellenberg had his new trial and the harshest possible sentence was pronounced: death. Unusually, foreign journalists were invited to witness the process, presumably to get the word out and make a point.
And in the context of the dispute between Beijing and Ottawa, that message is unmistakable: China will do whatever it takes to push back against the arrest of one of its citizens and the threat to Huawei, its premier international tech champion, legal niceties be damned. That includes holding the threat of execution over a Canadian citizen, presumably as another bargaining chip for an eventual negotiated settlement of the dispute.
In short, concludes Clarke, an expert on Chinese law, in the online national security journal Lawfare, it all reinforces the message that “China views the holding of human hostages as an acceptable way to conduct diplomacy.”
This at least has the merits of dropping all pretense about legality and due process, as was the completely over-the-top commentary published last week by China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye. In the Hill Times, he cut to the chase and blamed “Western egotism and white supremacy” for criticism about the detention of the two Canadians seized in clear retaliation for the arrest of Meng.
Unlike Meng, who had a public hearing before being released on bail to the comfort of her Vancouver home, they languish in Chinese jails without clear charges or regular access to legal and consular help. Yet, according to the Chinese ambassador’s logic, only “white supremacy” can explain the push-back against their detention.
Right from the start of this sorry affair, it’s been clear that Canada is caught between two giants – the U.S., whose justice department’s case against Meng is frankly questionable, and China, which sees all this as a test of political and economic strength, not a legal issue of right and wrong.
Canada has no choice but to honour its extradition treaty with Washington and let the case take its course in Canadian courts. Meng will get all the advantages of due process, something the Canadians detained in China will not enjoy.
Eventually, however, the cases will likely be resolved as part of a new understanding on trade issues between Washington and Beijing. In the meantime, the nature of China’s thoroughly politicized legal system is being laid bare for all to see.
The Toronto Star