Understanding the Arrest of Meng from a Chinese Perspective

Meng Wanzhou in 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Meng Wanzhou in 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

After media broke the news that Canada had arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on December 5, 2018, the Chinese government responded with a series of severe warnings. By January 21, 2019, these threats had escalated to the detainment of 13 Canadian citizens by Chinese security officers. Among those arrested were Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who worked full-time as Canada's Senior North East Asia Advisor, and Michael Spavor, a Canadian consultant who worked extensively in North Korea. Intensifying the matter, Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was sentenced to death after a Chinese court found him guilty of drug smuggling (he had appealed his initial sentence of 15 years in jail). These actions have been widely interpreted by the Canadian media as retaliations for Canada's arrest of Meng.

Unwarranted optimism

Initially, Canadian media and leaders presented an optimistic face to the public, which could be considered unwarranted given the circumstances. Canadian media coverage of the situation was void of warnings (except those made by David Mulroney, a previous diplomat under Prime Minister Harper's government) about the looming dangers for Canadians in China. This optimistic outlook neglected to acknowledge China's true stance regarding the arrest of Meng, therefore the Canadian press did not accurately represent the potential dangers Canadian travellers faced as tensions between the two nations rose.

It is not in the cards for Canada to dominate China through force. The solutions available will necessarily involve negotiation and conflict resolution. This requires an open-minded commitment to ending the crisis at hand. But in order to even begin such discussions, Canada needs to come to the table prepared and understanding of why China is so angry. Only with this knowledge can Canada truly gauge how far China is willing to go. In this blog I will attempt to illuminate the Chinese perspective, for the sake of mutual understanding and establishing a path forward.

A question of overreach

Firstly, China is not angry with Canada's rule of law, but rather, the reality that Canada arrested Meng to enforce the rule of American law. Vancouver is part of Canada, not the US. Regardless of Madam Meng’s potential wrongdoing in the US, she never violated any Canadian laws. She had not even shown any animosity towards Canada when she was arrested by Canadian authorities. The arrest took place not due to the violation of Canadian laws, but the suspicion that Madam Meng violated American laws. It is noteworthy that the pretext is not conviction, but mere suspicion.

Yes, Canada is honouring its treaty with the US and following its own extradition Act, but this explanation misses the sentiment at the core of the current Sino-Canadian discord. The Chinese diplomats in Canada do likely understand why Canada had few legal choices other than to arrest Meng—but understanding is not consent. From the Chinese perspective, this is not just a matter of honoring an extradition treaty and related legislation, but a matter of arresting a Chinese citizen without the Chinese government’s consent. Consent is essential. China generally consents to Canada arresting Chinese citizens for violating Canadian laws, but China does not consent to Canada arresting Chinese citizens for violating American laws.

China consents to let Canada deal with violations of Canadian laws, and an ongoing duty of the Chinese consulates in the country is to remind Chinese citizens living in or visiting Canada about the importance of respecting and obeying Canadian laws. I cannot, however, recall an occasion when Chinese consulates reminded Chinese citizens in Canada of the importance of respecting and obeying American laws. Does Canada think that they should? If Meng is extradited, that might be the implication - and the arrangement won’t be one that China consented to.

Therefore, the core of the current discord is not Canada’s rule of law, but its enforcement of American law. John Bolton, America’s hawkish National Security Advisor, called the situation a “law enforcement” matter—and he was referring to enforcement of American law.

Other countries watching the situation unfold also likely understand it as a matter of American law enforcement. I wonder how these countries—even established allies of the US—would feel if the same arrest and extradition were asked of them. The world is full of extradition treaties - and most of them have the potential to lead to disaster.

The trouble with treaties

It is important to remember that China also has extradition law, and—similar to Canada and the US—China and Russia have an extradition treaty. Now, hypothetically speaking, if an iconic Canadian female were transiting through China, and Russia called on China to help arrest this person to face potential justice in Russia, would it be considered politically or morally correct for China to arrest her and delivering her to Russia without any political involvement? What if almost every single Canadian believed that Russia’s request was made in bad faith? What if even the Chinese thought that Russia’s request was made in bad faith? If China did arrest the Canadian, and even extradited her to Russia, how should Canada react?

Answers to these questions would vary, and certainly be controversial. I hope by now, though, that my point is clear: extradition requests have the potential to be malevolent. This is why I claimed above that extradition treaties can lead to disaster, and why it is pertinent for Canadian politicians and media to remove their veil of innocence and explore China’s perspective.

There seemed to be informal mechanisms in place to prevent extradition treaties from spiralling into disaster. Since I am not a diplomat I cannot explain this with full confidence, but I understand there is a degree of tacit agreement in the international community to prevent the worst-case outcomes from occurring. This is precisely why the arrest of Meng, a high-profile Chinese citizen, was such a surprise—even to Canadians. If such an understanding were not in place, why would this arrest be so strikingly rare—or possibly even unprecedented? This unspoken mechanism has prevented the international community from frequent disturbances due to similar crises.

Unfortunately, whatever mechanism was in place to stabilize our international community has been weakened—some might say dismantled—by the request made by the American government. Neither Canada’s compliance with its extradition treaty, nor China’s passionate reactions to the arrest of one of its citizens, are new or surprising phenomena. What is new is the fact that the US asked for the extradition of a high-profile Chinese citizen in the manner it did, without apparent concern for the potential damage that would befall its ally, Canada. It is also new for the US to attempt to criminalize a corporate offence and arrest a CFO for it. Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University has pointed out that it is “the USA, not China, (that) is the real threat to international rule of law.” America is more politically polarized than ever, with a cabinet in place more hawkish than any before it. Its resulting approach on the international stage (towards rivals and allies alike) is a cause of concern for the world - including China and Canada alike.

For China, this is about sovereignty

What makes the potential extradition of Meng Wanzhou very dangerous is that the extradition jeopardizes China’s sovereignty. From China's perspective, this request for the arrest of a Chinese citizen in Canada was made by the US and enforced by Canada without China’s consent. Therefore, if Meng is indeed extradited to the US, this will been seen by China as a sign that American laws and America’s bilateral extradition treaties have trumped China’s sovereignty over its own citizens, and the human rights of its citizens. This would have been brought about not by a change in China’s actions, but by America’s revised approach to foreign policy and the traditional international order (which it was instrumental in establishing). This would be a humiliation that China would never take silently.

In other words, had the Chinese government accepted the potential extradition of Meng Wanzhou, China would be also by implication be accepting the expansion of the jurisdiction of American law to Chinese citizens in a way that China does not agree with in principle. This kind of acceptance is not going to happen. Therefore, to signal its resistance, China has to retaliate and escalate the issue. This is not merely a matter of losing face, but of fundamentals.

The Chinese government, from its perspective, has more reasons than other governments to react fiercely to extraditions. Its legitimacy is built on the promise of ending foreign humiliations (especially the impositions of foreign treaties). A consideration of China's “Century of Humiliation” helps to demonstrate this. This is the term Chinese history books use to describe the period from 1839 to 1949, during which China was subject to imperialist interventions (and humiliations, from a Chinese point of view) by Western powers and Japan. You may or may not agree with China’s official historical narrative, but it remains a fact that entire generations of Chinese citizens were raised on it. The “Century of Humiliation” narrative is deeply ingrained in the culture and legacy of the Chinese nation. Just as the Canadian education system instills a value of human rights in its young citizens and encourages them to protect it, an education in China prepares its citizens to defend the sovereignty of their country. The impasse is evident: Canada’s Liberal government must maintain its commitment to human rights to retain legitimacy, and China’s Communist government must uphold its commitment to sovereignty, for the same reason.

To be clear, the Chinese government is mostly employing ‘human rights’ rhetoric towards Meng’s arrest, rather than describing the matter as a ‘sovereignty issue’ - and we should be glad. If China does come to use the latter rhetoric, it will signal that the crisis has further escalated and Sino-Canadian relations are further damaged. This is because the Chinese government has been consistent in sending the message that its sovereignty is the last thing it would discuss or negotiate (if it would at all).

Mutual understanding is our best hope

The Chinese government's rage against Canada after Meng’s arrest is a matter of great complexity. The important points to keep in mind are that:

  • China views Meng’s arrest as a matter of American law enforcement, not a matter of Canada’s rule of law

  • China is frustrated that established international diplomatic norms have been undermined, and that Canada has been complicit in this process

  • From the Chinese perspective, this matter concerns China’s sovereignty - which is the last thing that the Chinese government would openly compromise on

Are Sino-Canadian relations doomed? No, far from it. China and Canada have two fundamental strategic interests in common. Firstly, each wants a peaceful relationship that will foster prosperity in both China and Canada. With prospering relations, China and Canada can also help each other to reduce America’s leverage in international negotiations. Secondly, neither China nor Canada wants to see the tension between China and the US to further escalate, because if Sino-American tension further escalate, Canada would be inevitably and uncomfortably caught in between. China, with its main goal of getting rich and protecting its wealth, also fears the worsening of Sino-American relations (which is also demonstrated by the fact that China had reacted to the US in much softer ways after the arrest of Meng). These two common strategic interests hopefully will keep China and Canada to remain partners and cooperate even more in the long term. It is not too late, yet.

The risk here is that the US is also aware that a strong relationship of cooperation between China and Canada could be detrimental to its advantage in negotiations. Thus, the US has an incentive to prevent China and the Canada from getting closer. Recent events are in keeping with this theory: the US has pressured Canada (through the Five Eyes group) to keep Huawei out of its 5G networks, with growing intensity. It has created a divide between Chinese and Canadian leaders, after Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Trudeau’s amicable co-appearance at the ASEAN summit in mid-November. Its president has demonstrated a willingness to use Meng as a bargain chip. If the next American administration becomes significantly more hawkish toward China, and Canada and China have not prepared themselves for the coming storm, Sino-Canadian relations will go through a difficult time.

Sino-Canadian relations are not doomed yet. To keep them strong, however, those who care about the relationship must speak up with reason and courage. People from both sides should participate in this process to promote mutual understanding, and that is why I have written this article.

Chengkun Lv is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. With an undergraduate background in history focussing on the interaction between Western countries and East Asia after the 1500s—also with interests in a series of areas where China and Canada could cooperate on, such as sustainability and climate change—Chengkun aspires to document, analyze, and advise on China and Canada’s policies towards each other.