Pawns on a geopolitical chessboard and protagonists in a strange episode of Cold War 2.0: from left to right Michael Spavor, Meng Wanzhou, Michael Kovrig.
Was an innocent Canadian man tricked by his government into spying in China, where he served a multi-year prison sentence? – And was an innocent Chinese woman arrested and detained by the same government on behalf of Washington in defiance of international law?
Economic war against Chinese technology group claims victims
On December 1, 2018, Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the US authorities as she was changing planes in Vancouver, Canada. The CFO of the Chinese technology group Huawei was on her way to a company conference in Mexico. The US had declared war on the global technology leader in mobile networks, causing it to lose key markets and its smartphone sales, which had surpassed those of Apple and Samsung, to plummet due to the ban on microchips. This plunged the company into an existential crisis from which it has since recovered – with its own microchips and innovative products. Because the company had allegedly violated sanctions against Iran (it had counted Iranian telecommunications companies among its customers for years) and this Chinese executive had lied about it, the US Department of Justice demanded that Canada arrest Meng Wanzhou and extradite her to the USA.
The Chinese government responded on December 6 and demanded Meng’s immediate release and a reason for her arrest. On the same day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that there had been “no political intervention” and that the Canadian judiciary had acted independently in processing the US extradition request.
China took a different view and threatened Canada with consequences on December 8 if the imprisoned citizen was not released. Fears of a trade war between the US and China dominated the stock markets on the same day and caused share prices to plummet. One of the threatened consequences was the Chinese ban on imports of meat products from Canada from June to November 2019.
On December 10, China arrested former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who worked for the think tank International Crisis Group, and business consultant Michael Spavor on suspicion of “engaging in activities that threatened China’s national security“. China did not link this event to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Canada and later denied that there was any connection. However, the Canadian and US governments and the Western mainstream media interpreted this as retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
In January 2019, Trudeau and then US President Donald Trump condemned the “arbitrary detention” of the two Canadians by China.
Later that month, Trudeau fired the Canadian ambassador to China, John McCallum, for saying in an interview with Chinese media that Meng had good grounds to challenge her extradition to the United States.
Canada updated its travel advice for China and warned its citizens of the “risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws“.
In response, China warned its citizens of the “risks” of traveling to Canada, citing Meng’s arrest.
In June 2020, China formally charged Kovrig and Spavor, more than 18 months after their arrest. The public prosecutor’s office stated that they were suspected of “foreign espionage” and “providing state secrets”. This also included video and photo recordings of military and dual-use objects.
A deal is being forged
In January 2021, Meng’s lawyers asked a court to relax her bail conditions, which included a curfew, an ankle bracelet, and surveillance by security personnel of the Vancouver home where she had been living since her arrest. The judge sided with the government’s lawyers, who objected.
Kovrig and Spavor went on trial in March 2021. Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison in China. No result has yet been announced in Kovrig’s case.
On September 24, 2021, Meng reached a settlement with the US Attorney’s Office and the charges of aggravated fraud were dropped. After a formal court hearing in Vancouver, she was released and returned to China.
Hours later, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, announced that Spavor and Kovrig had been released and were on their way to Canada. The Chinese authorities said they had released them on humanitarian grounds without overturning the court sentences.
Drama part 2: The shocking twist
The “two Michaels” from Canada were unjustly imprisoned in China for years without having anything to do with espionage. Typical China – arbitrary justice! That’s how the Canadian and US governments and the mainstream media have portrayed it for years.
But now one of the Canadians, Michael Spavor, is suing his government for millions because the other, Michael Kovrig, passed on the information he privately shared with Kovrig to the US-led spy group “Five Eyes”. If one thing is certain, it’s that it was a Chinese businesswoman who was arbitrarily arrested – by Canada! But more on that later.
Michael – the spy or the bridge builder?
Michael Spavor first became known for his work as an advisor and organizer of events in North Korea, where he even met, chatted, and joked with the head of state. He was also active in sports diplomacy, organizing trips to Pyongyang for US basketball legend Dennis Rodman, who was trying to break the political ice between the United States and North Korea. It made sense because North Korea’s leader is a big basketball fan. Rodman’s old New York acquaintance Donald Trump, who had him on his TV show, followed up on Rodman’s well-intentioned initiative when he became US president by engaging Pyongyang in diplomacy and holding face-to-face meetings with his North Korean counterpart – a departure from the rigid intransigence of previous presidents.
I have known Michael Spavor personally for many years. He is a likable person and I have enjoyed his company, like that of a good friend, on several occasions. He didn’t seem to have strong political views and was a pragmatist, something I think we had in common. However, one important point in which we differed was that I wanted to keep as much to myself as possible, whereas he shared a lot of information with many people that the host country might consider sensitive. We will talk more about the political minefield we were both navigating later.
I first met him in Pyongyang, where he helped me create the first promotional video for the first pharmaceutical joint venture I was managing at the time. When I heard about his arrest on espionage charges in China, I was shocked because I couldn’t believe he was a spy. Besides, North Korea never accused him of being a snitch. And if he had been, North Korean intelligence would have found out before the Chinese. To me, he seemed like a nice guy who was friendly with everyone and just communicated a lot, including about his efforts in North Korea. Talkative Michael may have been a fool, but he wasn’t a spy. And as we’ll see, he wasn’t smart enough to be a spy either.
That proved to be his undoing, because the other Canadian, Michael Kovrig, worked for Canadian intelligence and passed on the private conversations he had with Spavor to the Five Eyes, the main Western spy group (made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported, “A third highly placed source told The Globe that Mr. Kovrig was considered an intelligence asset, as a diplomatic officer at the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP) within the Canadian embassy in Beijing, and later when based in Hong Kong at International Crisis Group.” It must have been easy for Chinese counterintelligence, which had uncovered the CIA’s entire espionage network in China a few years earlier, to recognize such activities.
Betrayal of a friend?
After Michael Spavor’s arrest, countless people on Twitter (“X”) and other social media expressed their sympathy for him and became his fans. But now that he has taken legal action, they are turning their backs on him, accusing him of throwing his former friend Michael Kovrig under the bus and trying to make millions at his expense.
Michael Spavor has been friends with Michael Kovrig for a long time. He first met him when Kovrig was still a diplomat and before he worked for the International Crisis Group. George Soros, a regime change activist, was a founding member of the group and helped fund it; Soros called Chinese President Xi Jinping the “most dangerous enemy“.
In addition, Spavor was known to have close relations with diplomats at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and to have been in contact with many other Western government officials in China. This put him at risk because his host country might consider him an informant or even a spy for a hostile foreign state. He also maintained close relations with Western diplomats in Seoul. As if that were not enough, he was also friends with Western journalists, who may have included CIA agents.
He liked to talk to “well-connected” people and boast about his high-ranking contacts, which made him feel important. He enjoyed drinking and those who saw him drunk were amazed at how talkative he became and how much private information he could divulge. When I was living and working in North Korea, I tried to do the exact opposite and did my best to avoid talking to diplomats and sharing information with them, knowing that it could be dangerous. Playing golf with the British ambassador in Pyongyang, no matter how nice he was, was an absolute no-go for me. I even tried to avoid invitations to lunch or dinner from the military attaché of neutral Switzerland in Beijing (who was also responsible for North Korea), as I wasn’t sure whether my shared knowledge would end up in Washington D.C., the “arch-enemy” of my host country. How naive do you have to be not to believe that diplomats pass on information?
In addition, Michael Spavor’s relationships with customers and business partners were not always smooth. Threats of legal action against well-paying clients and other misconduct have tarnished his reputation.
He must have spent a terrible three years in prison in China, so it is only understandable that he feels entitled to compensation from those responsible. The demand for a high seven-figure sum seems to indicate that his judgment is failing here too. As a friend, I would suggest he be more pragmatic and work with the Canadian government towards a fair solution without smashing china in public.
The web of lies exposed
For years it was claimed that China had “illegally” imprisoned two innocent Canadians for espionage in China, while the US had “lawfully” facilitated the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Canada. But thanks to Spavor’s lawsuit against the Canadian government, the picture is suddenly changing.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this incident – aside from the fact that the Canadian government has put a naive and innocent citizen in grave danger – is that the West has condemned China for an allegedly arbitrary arrest when it has done pretty much the same thing.
The West is once again projecting its own behavior onto its rivals
Legal experts describe the US’s actions at the time as extraterritorial jurisdiction or interference in other countries, generally directed against North Korea, China, Russia, Iran and other countries that do not wish to subordinate themselves to US interests.
The US pushed for an end to international trade with Iran. China did the right thing by upholding the rule of law and not giving in to this pressure. Global sanctions can only be decided by the UN Security Council. By replacing international law with its own “rules-based order”, the United States demanded that Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou be arrested and extradited from Canada. Her arrest was on the grounds that the company was allegedly attempting to circumvent unilateral US sanctions against Iran, although no such sanctions were in place in Canada itself at the time of her arrest.
Conditioned media consumers will continue to believe the same old fake news
The Michaels, who were portrayed as innocent political pawns, and Meng, who was demonized as a despicable villain, were released after about three years. It can be assumed that the Five Eyes actually received information from the two Michaels. And Meng’s arrest in Canada now seems all the more arbitrary and unjust.
Since the debunked fake news has been circulating for years, you can be sure that few people will hear the rebuttal. This also has a lot to do with the nature of the Western mainstream media, which no longer act as critical observers but as loyal allies of Western governments led by the United States.