Could Olympics offer leverage against China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’?

The looming espionage convictions of two Canadians in what has been called an act of “hostage diplomacy” should push this country to take a tougher stand toward the Chinese regime — and a hard look at the upcoming Beijing Olympics, observers say.

Verdicts in the cases of the so-called two Michaels — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — were expected this week, with Spavor’s verdict anticipated as early as Tuesday evening.

The outcome scarcely seemed in doubt. The conviction rate in China is 99.7 per cent, as touted by China’s own Supreme People’s Court.

A third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, had his death sentence upheld Monday as a Chinese court rejected his appeal. He had been sentenced in January 2019 on charges of drug trafficking.

All three Canadians are widely believed to have been targeted by China in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is going through extradition proceedings in Vancouver that would send her to the United States to face fraud charges related to her company’s dealings with Iran.

The Chinese executive comes from a powerhouse family in China with influence in both the political and business world, and her arrest in December 2018 at the Vancouver airport was seen by Beijing as a grave insult. Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were arrested in China days after Meng was detained in a tactic that observers have dubbed “hostage-taking diplomacy.”

Beijing has made it clear that they will not release the men unless Meng walks free.

So, what is Canada — a small player on the international scene — to do as tensions mount and the fate of the three detainees grows bleaker? The country finds itself stuck between two of the world’s most powerful nations in China and the U.S., which has an extradition treaty with Canada and holds most of the cards in the geopolitical situation swirling around the prisoners.

Former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, says this country could reach out to its allies and lobby that the Winter Olympics, set to take place in Beijing in February, be taken off the table and perhaps even relocated to North America.

“What does a country need to do for the world to decide, ‘Well, this country does not deserve to host the Games?’” he said.

“We know there’s a genocide going on in Xinjiang; we know they aren’t respecting the agreement with the UK on the autonomy of Hong Kong; we know how badly they managed the first phase of the pandemic; we know what they are doing in the South China Sea, how aggressive they are towards Taiwan.”

Should the Games continue to be held in Beijing anyway, there should be an agreement that no foreign leaders attend the opening ceremony, he said.

“You make this public and tell China, ‘This is what’s going to take place unless you agree to a full investigation … in Xinjiang,’” he said, referring to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where reports of genocide carried out by China have caused international condemnation.

“China will use it for political purposes, for its prestige,” said Saint-Jacques.

Clive Ansley, retired from 36 years of legal practice in both Canada and China, who now works as a consultant on legal issues related to China, said there are well-documented human rights abuses in China and called the idea of the Games being held there “absolutely obscene.”

Ansley cautioned, though, that using Olympics as leverage poses risks.

“It’s almost like a kind of blackmail,” he said, adding that negotiating on that front could make the situation look like it’s politically driven, rather than driven by the principle of law and Canada’s treaty obligations to the United States.

Ansley said he supports continuing the extradition process for Meng — as bad as the situation facing the detainees is.

“We can’t just walk away from that,” he said. “Because the result of that would be an absolute guarantee that every time we have a dispute with China, their first recourse will be hostage diplomacy. Their first instinct will be to grab the nearest Canadian.”

Both Sainte-Jacques and Ansley said that the world has to consider tough trade sanctions on China.

“China, under the Chinese Communist Party, is an international outlaw,” said Ansley. “When China commits an illegal act under international law, then we need to stop pussyfooting around and trying to appease China.”

Saint-Jacques said the federal government has to “develop more concrete” strategies for dealing with China. He said there has been some movement from Canada, which led the way for the recent signing of the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations by dozens of countries.

When the closed-door trials for the two Michaels took place in March, representatives from other countries showed up to support them and to denounce the secrecy of the Chinese court, labelling it a violation of the country’s international bilateral treaty obligations.

“We are at the stage where we have send some concrete challenges to China and we cannot do this working alone,” Saint-Jacques said.

With files from Joanna Chiu and Maria Sarrouh

Read more about: