A Chinese court on Friday opened a lawsuit against a Canadian businessman who has been in custody for more than two years on charges of espionage. This case sparked a worldwide outcry and called on the US to intervene.
A court in Dandong, a northeastern Chinese city, tried the Canadian Michael Spavor, who campaigned for cultural travel to North Korea before he was arrested in late 2018, in retaliation for Canada’s decision to arrest a leading Chinese technology executive United States request.
The court said in a concise statement that Mr. Spavor had been tried for espionage and “illegally providing state secrets abroad”. It was said that a verdict would be pronounced at a later date.
As a sign of China’s efforts to control the trial, the authorities banned the public and the news media from participating in the trial. A group of 10 diplomats from eight countries, including Canada and the United States, tried to gain access to the trial in Dandong, a coastal city near China’s border with North Korea, but were turned away. The court said the trial, which lasted about two hours, was held in private because it contained state secrets.
“We are deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in these processes,” said Jim Nickel, a senior official at Canada’s Embassy in Beijing who attempted to participate in the process, in a statement.
Another Canadian, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was also arrested in 2018, is expected to stand trial in Beijing on Monday.
Since their detention, Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig have been at the center of a heated international dispute between China, Canada and the United States.
China, accusing western countries of attempting to thwart its rise as a tech superpower, is urging the US to end a full-blown fraud case against Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei. The United States, requesting Ms. Meng’s extradition, has asked China to release Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig.
“The trials of the two Michaels are revenge for Ms. Meng,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a veteran Canadian ambassador to China who was Mr. Kovrig’s boss when he was first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. “It’s a message to Canada and the world: ‘Don’t mess with China.'”
The Canadians question was about to come up when senior government officials from Biden met their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage on Thursday. Friends and relatives of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig have urged President Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take steps to ensure their release.
American officials said Friday that they were “deeply alarmed” by China’s decision to continue the trials of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. “We stand side by side with Canada in demanding their immediate release,” a US embassy spokesman in Beijing said in a statement.
Any compromise with Beijing could be elusive as China has shown no signs of withdrawal but has used the persecution of the two men to project an image of strength and demand that the United States withdraw its extradition request for Ms. Meng.
“Beijing makes it clear that the two Michaels with Chinese characteristics will be tried: closed to the public and the media,” said Diana Fu, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “His actions leave little doubt as to who will be the ultimate decider of the fate of the Canadians – the Chinese Communist Party, not Biden, not Trudeau.”
The detention of the two men has led to tougher measures against China in Canada. According to a recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute, a leading polling company, only 14 percent of Canadians view China positively. A majority see the Chinese government’s liberation of the two Canadians as a prerequisite for re-establishing relations.
“There is a backlash against China in Canada and the process will only exacerbate attitudes,” said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute. He added that the case of the two Michaels underscored the limited leverage of a middle power like Canada in the face of an economic and political giant like China.
Legal experts and human rights defenders have denounced China’s treatment of Canadians and accused Chinese officials of using “hostage diplomacy”. The two men, held in separate prisons in northern China, are largely cut off from the world and sometimes forced to go months without diplomatic visits. They had limited access to defense lawyers.
“Like so many cases where Chinese authorities try to silence a critic or settle a bill, these cases have nothing to do with the law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
As a self-described consultant, Mr. Spavor ran an organization in Dandong promoting cultural trips to North Korea. There he made high-ranking contacts and once met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. In 2013, Mr. Spavor helped organize a visit to North Korea for Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star.
“Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman,” his family said in a pre-trial statement on Friday. “He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to harm the interests of China or the Chinese people. We stand by Michael and keep his innocence in this difficult situation. “
Claire Fu and Albee Zhang have contributed to the research.