Detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor face ‘nightmare’ interrogation in China
It was the dark of night when former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was taken by officers from China’s state security apparatus to an unknown location in Beijing and rendered incommunicado.
- The two Canadians were arrested shortly after Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou was detained
- During interrogation the pair will be put under immense pressure, a former ambassador to China says
- China experts are concerned the pair are being used as political hostages
Last Monday, December 10, was the beginning of his “nightmare” — the “interrogation phase” — according to his friend and former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.
They worked together closely for two years before Mr Kovrig took leave of the Canadian foreign service to join the respected NGO, The International Crisis Group, an organisation for which Australia’s former foreign minister Gareth Evans was chief executive.
As a diplomat with four decades’ experience, including 13 years spent in China, Mr Saint-Jacques has seen enough cases to know what the Chinese State Security Bureau officers are capable of doing to his former colleague.
“I have a lot of feeling for Michael because he is going through a difficult process,” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
“The lights will always be on in his room. There will always be a minder present. They will put a lot of psychological pressure on him to try and have him break down and admit to anything.”
Those psychological pressures to which Mr Kovrig is likely to be subjected include sleep deprivation and even starvation in some cases, Mr Saint-Jacques said.
“They render the feeding schedule unpredictable. He will be subject to long hours of questioning.
“Once he is formally charged — if you look at the Chinese legal system — 99.9 per cent of the people are found guilty.
“The odds will be against him.”
‘Kill the chickens, scare the monkey’
This week, Canada learned it is the chicken in the Chinese proverb.
China has taken not just one but two Canadian citizens “hostage”, in the words of one experienced China watcher, the Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor.
Mr McGregor said this was a reprisal for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a powerful Huawei executive recently detained in Canada, pending extradition to the US.
Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, was also taken into custody by the Chinese on the same day as Mr Kovrig on December 10 — the date celebrated by the UN for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr Spavor runs a company called Paektu Cultural Exchange. He has worked in North Korea, including running former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s peculiar visit there in 2013.
Mr Saint-Jacques believes Beijing wants to send a clear message to the United States.
The chicken-killing proverb has also been used in the Australian context.
Just last year, former senator Nick Xenophon used it in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute when posing the possibility China “may sink an Australian vessel to warn off the United States Navy”.
That was in the context of a conflict in the South China Sea, but parallels remain.
“I think that Australia and Canada are in very similar positions and if something were to happen like [a US arrest warrant for a Chinese national] in Australia, I think you would be subject to similar behaviour,” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
For now, Canada is “caught in the battle between two elephants and we have our hands tied with our strategy”.
“We are collateral damage,” he said.
Michael Spavor (centre) was instrumental in bringing NBA player Dennis Rodman (left) to Pyongyang in 2013. (AP: Ng Han Guan)
Arrest a political tit-for-tat
This week, the United States was not speaking with a single voice on China.
US President Donald Trump offered to intervene in the Huawei extradition case, telling Reuters, “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made — which is a very important thing — what’s good for national security, I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary”.
To which Ottawa retorted, “Our extradition partners should not seek to politicise the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice”.
Mr Trump says he is “very good friends” with Mr Xi, despite the growing diplomatic tensions. (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
By making a political statement, it may have played into the hands of Beijing, which believes the arrest of the Huawei executive is purely politically motivated.
In contrast, the US President’s national security adviser John Bolton delivered a striking rebuke of China’s diplomatic practices in a speech to the Heritage Foundation.
He called Beijing’s actions in Africa “predatory” and outlined a less transactional approach to US diplomacy with China.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Mr Bolton said.
“Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as US developmental programs.”
After Ms Meng was granted bail, the courtroom erupted in applause. (The Canadian Press via AP: Jonathan Hayward)
That fits with Mr Saint-Jacques’ observations of China’s encouragement of authoritarian behaviour in other governments.
“At the 19th Party Congress last year, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping offered China as a model to developing countries,” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
“He said he didn’t have to compromise with Western values.”
Same story, different faces
In 2014, as Canada’s ambassador in Beijing, Mr Saint-Jacques had to deal with an almost identical situation to the Mr Kovrig arrest.
A Chinese national, Su Bin, was arrested in Canada on a US warrant accusing him of spying, so the Chinese arrested a Canadian missionary couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, in response.
“While they never explicitly said it was in order to make a swap, it was clear from the many meetings I had with the Chinese [that was their intent],” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
“Eventually, Su Bin surprised everyone because he made the deal with the US attorneys to cooperate and he was shipped to the US.”
The Garratts owned a coffee shop in Dandong when they were arrested. (Reuters: Ben Blanchard)
That did not stop the Chinese from exerting enormous pressure on the Garratts.
“The process took just over two years before he was sentenced and deported,” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
During that time, the Chinese threatened Mr Garratt, whose son was studying in China at the time.
“Beijing threatened to arrest his son if he didn’t sign a confession,” Mr Saint-Jacques said.
“I think that poor Michael [Kovrig] is going through a similar process now.”