How a Growing Rift With Canada Is Unfolding in China

Hello, Canada Letter readers. This is Catherine Porter, filling in for Ian Austen. Like many Canadians, I have China on my mind this week.

A little more than a year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was traveling to Beijing, hoping for a free trade deal. How things have changed. Since Canada carried out an American warrant and arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in the Vancouver airport last month, Canada seems to have become enemy No. 1 of the Chinese government. The price has been steep for three Canadians in particular: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both detained in China and accused of threatening national security, as well as Robert Schellenberg, who was hastily retried this week for drug smuggling. His original sentence of 15 years in prison was replaced with the death penalty.

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In Canada, the sentence has been viewed as a kind of international ransom. But I wondered how the détente has been perceived in China. I reached out to my colleague Chris Buckley. An Australian by birth, Chris has lived in China for more than two decades and studied Chinese Communist Party history at Renmin University in Beijing. He joined The Times in 2012.

What is public opinion of Canada like in China now?

It’s not simple. When I walk home from work at night, I pass close by the newly opened Canada Goose store in Beijing, and there have been long lines of people waiting to go in. On the other hand, I think that most Chinese people accept their government’s view that Huawei is being victimized in the West and that Meng Wanzhou was unfairly arrested in Canada

It’s been getting attention here in China, too, though not on the same level as it has received in Canada. The cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were reported in the Chinese media, mostly accounts of their arrests and the Chinese foreign ministry’s pushback against criticism. Robert Schellenberg’s appeal hearing and detention attracted more media attention, using the court’s account of the trial. Throughout all this, the Global Times, which is a brashly nationalist newspaper and website, has led the way in criticizing the Canadian government.Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was retried on drug trafficking charges in China this week and was sentenced to death.CreditIntermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was retried on drug trafficking charges in China this week and was sentenced to death.CreditIntermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian

Reporters were invited to observe the trial. Why would China do that?

It’s very unusual for foreign reporters to be allowed in to watch criminal trials. I’ve never been inside a Chinese criminal trial. The court hasn’t said exactly why it made an exception in Mr. Schellenberg’s case. But I suspect two reasons. First, the court and government wanted to show that he received what counts for a proper hearing in China. Second, if Mr. Schellenberg is being used as a bargaining chip, it makes sense for the Chinese government to publicize the trial.

How unusual is it in China for a pending execution to be publicized?

In heinous murders and crimes like that, the government often publicizes executions. In a case like this — a drug smuggling case involving a foreigner — it is much less common. This might be the Chinese government sending a warning to potential drug traffickers, or maybe a way of putting pressure on Canada.

What is the feeling among foreigners inside China now?

Foreigners from Western countries, especially Canada, have been a bit spooked by the arrests. There is certainly not a mass exit of Westerners from China. But I think there is a subsection of people who, like Michael Kovrig — a former diplomat who worked for a policy NGO — have a government job background and talk to Chinese academics and officials for their work. For them, especially, his arrest seems to have been unnerving.

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, leaving her home in Vancouver last month with a security guard.CreditJonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Where do you see this going?

Ms. Meng’s fight against possible extradition to the United States could take many months, even longer. How long it takes for Mr. Schellenberg to work through his appeal and other means for seeking clemency depends very much on how slow or fast the Chinese government wants to go. So for Mr. Schellenberg this could be a long, agonizing wait. Meanwhile, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor remain in detention and haven’t even been formally charged with specific crimes. So I think this story will be in the news for many months to come, and maybe longer.

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