The plight of two Canadians detained in China is a striking symbol of Beijing’s increased use of secret prisons and foreign nationals as political tools under President Xi Jinping, say human rights activists and former detainees.
Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and entrepreneur Michael Spavor are among nearly 30,000 people who were detained at the facilities from 2013 to 2019, according to Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group co-founded by Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin, himself. even imprisoned. in a secret prison.
Activists and former diplomats urge the international community to maintain an assertive approach, arguing that quiet diplomacy is ineffective.
The Canadians were detained in December 2018 following the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, Chief Financial Officer of Huawei and daughter of the founder of the telecommunications group. Ms. Meng was detained after the United States issued an extradition request for alleged sanctions violations against Iran and has been living under house arrest at her home since 2018. Huawei has claimed she was innocent of the charges.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor spent six months in secret prisons as part of a program started in 2013 known as “Residential Surveillance in a Designated Place” (RSDL) and were only allowed to meet with the consular officials only once during this period. They were accused of espionage, but the Canadian government called the arrests arbitrary and compared China’s approach to hostage-taking.
The detention of foreign nationals in China as a political tool dates back decades.
“It’s been almost 50 years since I was detained, and 50 years later we have the same thing again,” said Anthony Gray, a British journalist who was under house arrest for two years from 1967. .
Mr Gray was among a dozen British nationals detained following the arrest of a group of Chinese journalists in Hong Kong. The Chinese have reportedly violated emergency rules during violent protests and riots in the city, then under British rule. Mr. Gray was released after several Chinese journalists served their prison terms.
China has also arrested Australian citizens, with whom it has enjoyed strained relations in recent years. More recently, Beijing inmate Cheng Lei, a reporter who worked for Chinese state television, in August, after Australian intelligence personnel raided the homes of Chinese journalists in the country.
People detained for national security reasons are generally detained under RSDL for up to six months. According to Safeguard Defenders, around 400 people were taken into custody in 2013, the first year the program launched, and increased to more than 6,000 in 2019. It indicates that inmates are psychologically abused and tortured, with tactics such as detention. continuous lights in cells and sleep deprivation.
Chinese police can detain people for long periods of time without evidence outside of the RSDL system. In 2013, corporate investigators Peter Humphrey, a British citizen, and his Chinese-American wife Yu Yingzeng were detained for almost two years, during which time the police tried to force them to confess to various crimes. They denied all the allegations.
“We have a new rising power which is acting like a tyrant, and which is building up an inventory of prisoners who are becoming a bargaining chip in its negotiations with countries on almost everything,” Humphrey said.
China’s supporters view its actions as commensurate with others. Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei believes the charges against his daughter are politically motivated, recommends the book The American trap by Frédéric Pierucci, former French leader of energy group Alstom, on his imprisonment for extraterritorial corruption in the United States when General Electric tried to take over part of the French company. Mr. Pierucci alleged that Washington is using extraterritorial laws to attack countries competing with strategic US industries.
Foreign governments are reluctant to give in to Beijing’s demands, but also want to maintain good relations with the world’s second-largest economy.
“I don’t think quiet diplomacy works with the Chinese Communist Party. Quiet diplomacy depends on the two sides sharing a set of values, ”said Roger Garside, British diplomat in Beijing at the time of Mr. Gray’s arrest. “It means respect for the rule of law and standards of international diplomatic behavior. The CCP under Xi’s leadership has demonstrated that it rejects any notion of universal values.
Mr. Garside supports Magnitsky-type economic sanctions, which target specific individuals accused of human rights violations and have been used against Russia.
Mr Gray recalls that when he was arrested he wanted the UK to offer what the Chinese authorities wanted. But “this is blackmail,” he said, adding that he would not advocate that Canada put aside the rule of law and release Ms. Meng.
Harrison Li, the son of Kai Li, a US citizen detained in China on national security suspicion in 2016, supports this robust approach. “If governments don’t speak out on this issue and try to tackle it head-on, this will only continue,” he said.
Earlier this year, a group of high-profile former Canadian parliamentarians and lawyers urged Ottawa to consider releasing Ms Meng. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the suggestion, saying it would embolden China.
For now, fans are working to stay abreast of the plight of Canadians.
Charlie Parton, a former British diplomat and now at RUSI, a security think tank, led the #FreeChinaHostages campaign, urging people to send Christmas cards to detainees at Chinese embassies around the world.
“One of the goals is to show the world the nature of the beast. Despite the advanced ideas of a win-win and shared humanity, the Chinese Communist Party is an unpleasant organization, ”he said.
After Mr Gray’s release, he was told that bags of Christmas cards had been delivered to China’s Foreign Ministry as part of a similar effort – but had been burned.
“I’m not sure any of these cards would reach the two Michaels in prison, but I do know I was very deeply moved that people cared enough to write to me, and I think they would. they too moved, “he said.