The Release of Michael Spavor & Michael Kovrig: A Clear Underlying Message

Commentary article by Robert Kwauk

Robert Kwauk - 10 November 2021

The opinions expressed by authors in these commentaries do not necessarily represent the views of the China Institute or the University of Alberta.


In the world of international relations and diplomacy, actions are taken, and words spoken only upon careful considerations and deliberations to ensure messages are clearly communicated. Regardless of being amicable or antagonistic, blatantly obvious or subtly nuanced, the implications of a misunderstanding of underlying messages can be severe. There is no shortage of pundits in the backrooms – diplomats, political scientists, publicists, or even lawyers –  to ensure that nothing is left to chance. We saw it on full display via live TV with the recent release of the two Michaels: from the timed release and flight home of the two Canadians from China at almost the precise moment as that of Ms. Meng back to China, to the contrast between the less descriptive polka dots worn by Ms. Meng when she boarded the plane in Vancouver and the radiant red when she landed in Shenzhen. Every detail was by design, to underline and exclamation mark unspoken words.

China has purported all along that the two Michaels had been arrested, within days of Meng’s arrest at the Vancouver International Airport, on the suspicion of espionage which they were subsequently charged with, and not in retaliation or as hostages. The way in which they were set free after over a thousand days in detention, however, left very little doubt that it was anything but. It played out as an exchange of prisoners, reminiscent of the Frances Powell – Rudolf Abel exchange at the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin during the Cold War era While China made a passing claim of that the two Michaels were released on humanitarian grounds due to medical needs, that left more questions than answers: what the nature of the ailments were; how both prisoners just happened to need a medical release at the same time; how China’s advanced medical sciences were unable to handle whatever the issues might have been; and whether or not they would still need to return to China after the required medical treatments to face trial or complete their prison term. This presents a stark contrast with the release of another accused spy on similar grounds by neighbouring North Korea: American student Otto Warmbier was released on medical grounds and returned to his parents by medivac in a coma , only to pass away within days of his arrival back in the United States.

In short, China did very little to suggest that the release, and hence the arrest, of the two Michaels was anything but a tit for tat retaliation. This presupposes that the two Michaels were taken and kept as hostages in the first place, despite the risk to China’s image by acting like a “rogue” state, not unlike regimes such as North Korea, Iran, the Taliban, etc.  Does this reflect China’s disregard for its reputation on the international stage and is it an acknowledgment that China could act contrary to the values of the civilized society it claims to have established?  Was this a statement that China could justify such heavy-handedness with the ends of liberating its citizen from what it sees as an unjustifiable arrest by Canada in the first place?

As much as the West likes to apply the term of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy to describe China’s current approach to its relationship with the world, China and its citizens still perceive and represent the nation as courteous, reasonable, and rule-based, its growing confidence and assertiveness notwithstanding. The country is therefore very conscious of its global image and its growing leadership role on many global issues. All of this is inconsistent with a tacit admission that the two Michaels had been hostages to pressure for Ms. Meng’s release.

Could this then be a message specifically meant for Canada: that, for a multitude of reasons, China no longer cares about what we think or do, especially having seen the world at large, our likeminded allies and most reliable neighbour to the south essentially stand by with very little concrete actions taken other than lip services paid and superficial symbolic gestures made during this excruciatingly long ordeal?  There was a time when Canada was important to China; many can remember when Canadian grain was shipped to China during the Great Famine, the diplomatic relationship was normalized under Pierre Trudeau’s leadership, CIDA programs granted for various developments, investments in natural resources were welcomed, etc. These factors allowed Canada to gently engage in dialogue with China on “softer” issues such as education, governance, justice, and civil society. This, however, is no longer the case; China has developed and transformed rapidly while Canada has stood still in many ways. While some of the values which Canada is proud of might be attractive to progressives in the West, they are nevertheless incompatible with the cultures, ideologies, and realities present in many places of this world, China included. With the continuation of current trends of development in both countries along with the growing importance of China to our allies, Canada’s ability to influence China will more than likely continue to diminish. Canada will have less and less to offer to China as time goes on, while our allies will become more supportive of China’s position when faced with the need to choose between China and Canada. 

We were recently reminded by certain high-profile thinkers that there is a great deal for us to learn from this episode. China is too important a country for Canada and the world to misunderstand and ignore and recognizing who we are (and are not) and what we are capable (and not capable) of doing would be an obvious place to start.  As China continues to speak to the world, either through words or actions, it will be imperative for us to understand the messages China is trying to telegraph. In order to influence our government on policies and relationships vis-à-vis China, individual Canadians need to gain at least some balanced understanding of not only the dynamics between the two countries, but also the roles played by other countries in this ever so complex world, lest the agendas be hijacked by better organized interest groups to the detriment of our nation’s interest.  At the very least, the two countries need to tone down hostilities and promote cooperation as so much could be done for both mutual and worldwide benefit.