A Chinese court sentenced Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison Wednesday in a spying case that has been linked to Beijing’s retaliatory measures against the Canadian government over the arrest of an executive at tech giant Huawei. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “absolutely unacceptable and unjust”. With relations between China and Canada already at the worst in decades over what some commentators have called ‘tit-for-tat arrests’ of nationals and ‘hostage diplomacy’, the unexpectedly harsh verdict of Spavor seems to sink the relationship to an even lower point.
Spavor was found guilty of “spying and illegal provision of state secrets abroad” by the Liaoning court on Wednesday and will also be fined 50,000 yuan (US$7,700) and deported. He has 10 days to appeal. Spavor and another Canadian Michael Kovrig were detained in Dandong, Liaoning, China in less than two weeks after the Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested at the Vancouver airport during transit in late 2018 on a U.S. extradition request. A Canadian court will hear final arguments in the next few weeks over whether to hand Meng over to US to face U.S. criminal charges in connection with charges of bank fraud over Huawei’s business in Iran which may have involved possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran. On Tuesday, a Chinese court rejected the appeal of a third Canadian whose 15-year prison sentence in a drug case was abruptly increased to the death penalty in 2019 following Meng’s arrest. Meng’s lawyers argue the case is politically motivated.
China has released few details of the charges and said Spavor was supplying intelligence and sensitive information to former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig beginning in 2017. Kovrig also was detained in December 2018 and tried on spying charges, though no word has been given about a verdict. The two have been held in isolation for more than two years with only periodic contact with Canadian Embassy staff.
Trial of Michael Spavor was held in March 2021 behind closed doors where not even top diplomats of Canadian Embassy in Beijing were allowed. Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton travelled to Dandong in Liaoning province to hear the verdict. He said, “We condemn in strongest possible terms this decision rendered after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency.” At a press conference in Beijing, Jim Nickel, Deputy Head of Mission at Canadian Embassy in Beijing told media that it has not been a transparent process, so it remains unclear what has transpired in the courtroom. We remain frustrated about that, he said. The press conference at the Canadian Embassy was attended by representatives from 25 countries, including the ambassadors from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and diplomats from the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the EU, Italy and Sweden.
China’s government has criticized the arrest as part of U.S. efforts to hamper its technology development. Huawei, a maker of network equipment and smartphones, is China’s first global tech brand and is at the center of U.S.-Chinese tension over the security of information systems. Beijing has repeatedly demanded Meng’s immediate release. While denying a direct connection between her case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men’s fates in relation to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
The Huawei case is one of a series of conflicts between Beijing and other governments over China’s technology ambitions, human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas. China has tried to pressure Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products from Canada. Meanwhile, Beijing is blocking imports of Australian wheat, wine and other products after its government called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic which was first reported in Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.