Canadians home after Huawei CFO resolves US charges

Two Canadians who were held in China for 1000 days are greeted with an elbow bump by Justin Trudeau as they arrive back home in prisoner swap for ‘Princess of Huawei’ Meng Wanzhou

  • Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor landed in Calgary on Saturday
  • They were freed in three-way prisoner swap with US and China
  • China held the Michaels after US charged Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou
  • Meng was held in Canada pending extradition but was freed on Friday
  • She was charged with fraud over alleged Iran lies on HSBC loan application
  • Meng spent three years on bail living in a multimillion Vancouver mansion
  • The Michaels meanwhile were held in a grueling Chinese prison for 1,000 days 

Two Canadians who were released by China in a high-stakes prisoner swap deal were greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with an elbow-bump when they arrived back in Calgary on Saturday morning after three years in captivity.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, dubbed ‘the Michaels’ by Canadian press, were freed after more than 1,000 days in Chinese custody, after the US effectively dropped charges against Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou.

Trudeau greeted the Michaels with elbow bumps on the tarmac in Calgary, Alberta early on Saturday, after the Canadian Air Forces passenger plane carrying them landed, footage from CTV shows.

The men were arrested in China in December 2018, shortly after Canada arrested Meng on a U.S. extradition request. Many countries labeled China’s action ‘hostage politics.’

China freed the Michaels just after Meng, Huawei’s chief finance officer and daughter of the company’s founder, reached a deal with the U.S. Justice Department over fraud charges and flew from Canada to China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands with Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau to announce that Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been released by China

Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor (right), dubbed ‘the Michaels’ by Canadian press, were freed after more than 1,000 days in Chinese custody 

The charges against the two Michaels

On December 10, 2018, nine days after Meng’s arrest on US charges, China detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was employed by the International Crisis Group think tank, and business consultant Michael Spavor. 

They were held under suspicion of ‘engaging in activities that threatened China’s national security.’

In June 2020, China formally charged Kovrig and Spavor, more than 18 months after their arrests.

The Supreme People’s Procuratorate said they were “suspected of foreign espionage” and “providing state secrets.”

Kovrig and Spavor were tried in March of this year. Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison in China, and Kovrig’s sentence was pending. 

But both men were freed immediately after Meng’s non-prosecution agreement.

The chain of events involving the global powers brought an abrupt end to legal and geopolitical wrangling that for the past three years has roiled relations between Washington, Beijing and Ottawa. 

The three-way deal enabled China and Canada to each bring home their own detained citizens while the U.S. wrapped up a criminal case against a prominent Chinese tech executive that for months had been mired in an extradition fight.

The first activity came Friday afternoon when Meng, 49, reached an agreement with federal prosecutors that called for fraud charges against her to be dismissed next year and allowed for her to return to China immediately. 

As part of the deal, known as a deferred prosecution agreement, she accepted responsibility for misrepresenting the company´s business dealings in Iran.

‘These two men have been through an unbelievably difficult ordeal. For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance and grace and we are all inspired by that,’ Trudeau said a hastily called news conference late Friday night.

News of Meng’s pending return was a top item on the Chinese internet and on state broadcaster CCTV´s midday news report, with no mention made of the release of Kovrig and Spavor.

‘Thank you motherland, thank you to the people of the motherland. You have been my greatest pillar of support,’ Meng said at Vancouver International Airport as she departed for China.

Meng received a red-carpet welcome home — Huawei employees waited on the airport tarmac waving Chinese flags as a staffer in full protective gear offered her a bouquet of flowers, according to a live feed on state broadcaster CCTV.

‘Being an ordinary citizen, I could not have secured my freedom without the support of my beloved country, and the love of the Chinese people,’ Meng told supporters from the tarmac, before leading the crowd in a rendition of a patriotic Chinese song.

An Air China airplane carrying Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou arrives at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport in Shenzhen. China on Friday

‘Princess of Huawei’ Meng Wanzhou waves upon arriving from Canada at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport on Friday

Adoring crowds wait for the arrival of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in China, where the Huawei executive has become a national hero

Meng waves upon arriving from Canada at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport

The charges against Meng Wanzhou

The US justice department accuses Meng of having lied to HSBC about Huawei’s relationship with its Iran-based covert subsidiary Skycom, putting the bank at risk of violating US sanctions against Iran. 

But on Friday, US prosecutors settled for Meng agreeing to a statement of facts in the case.

In exchange, they agreed to defer the charges until 2022, and then drop them if Meng abides by the terms of the agreement.

In China, news of Meng’s agreement was being scrubbed from the internet, while the editor of state-run Global Times falsely claimed she had been ‘finally released on a not guilty plea.’

Gushing coverage in Beijing’s state media framed Meng’s return as a victory for China against US attempts to stifle its success, with official news agency Xinhua saying she was free thanks to ‘unremitting efforts of the Chinese government’.

Several hundred supporters gathered at Shenzhen airport arrivals hall waving Chinese flags and banners, with a red banner reading ‘Welcome home’.

Some chanted ‘Go Huawei!’ and sang the national anthem.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reposted on social media a report on Meng having left Canada, adding ‘Welcome home.’

In China, news of Meng’s agreement was being scrubbed from the internet, while the editor of state-run Global Times said she had been ‘finally released on a not guilty plea.’

‘I think China is going to… turn Meng Wanzhou’s release into a big victory, a diplomatic victory,’ said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor of Political Science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

He said the government would build a propaganda campaign to ‘ignore the accusations against her and give the illusion that she was wrongly accused of crimes she never committed.’

Former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, Kovrig´s former boss when Kovrig worked as a diplomat, said he was elated the two Canadians are home.

‘Clearly, the Chinese were so eager to get Meng back that they jettisoned all pretensions that the two Michaels had been arrested for good reasons. They must acknowledge that their reputation has been severely tarnished,’ Saint-Jacques said. 

‘There is grumbling in the Communist party of China, people saying, `In which direction are we going, Xi Jinping? We are creating too many enemies. Why are we enemies with countries like Canada and Australia?”

Saint-Jacques said he thinks China will think twice before using ‘hostage diplomacy’ again.

The deal was reached as President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have sought to tamp down signs of public tension – even as the world´s two dominant economies are at odds on issues as diverse as cybersecurity, climate change, human rights and trade and tariffs. 

Biden said in an address before the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week that he had no intention of starting a ‘new Cold War,’ while Xi told world leaders that disputes among countries ‘need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation.’

Biden said in an address before the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week that he had no intention of starting a ‘new Cold War’ with China

A video screen displays images of Canadians Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor at an event held in connection with the announcement last month that a Chinese court has sentenced Spavor to 11 years on spying charges in case linked to Huawei 

Canadian businessman Michael Spavor (third from the left) is seen in this file photo from January 8, 2014 in North Korea with Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un. 

‘The U.S. Government stands with the international community in welcoming the decision by People´s Republic of China authorities to release Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention. We are pleased that they are returning home to Canada,’ U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

As part of the deal with Meng, which was disclosed in federal court in Brooklyn, the Justice Department agreed to dismiss the fraud charges against her in December 2022 – exactly four years after her arrest – provided that she complies with certain conditions, including not contesting any of the government´s factual allegations. 

The Justice Department also agreed to drop its request that Meng be extradited to the U.S., which she had vigorously challenged, ending a process that prosecutors said could have persisted for months.

After appearing via videoconference for her New York hearing, Meng made a brief court appearance in Vancouver, where she’d been out on bail living in a multimillion-dollar mansion, while the two Canadians were held in Chinese prison cells where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day.

Outside the courtroom, Meng thanked the Canadian government for upholding the rule of law, expressed gratitude to the Canadian people and apologized ‘for the inconvenience I caused.’

‘Over the last three years my life has been turned upside down,’ she said. ‘It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, a wife and as a company executive. But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life. I will never forget all the good wishes I received.’

Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou speaks to media outside the B.C. Supreme Court following a hearing about her release in Vancouver on Friday

Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor (right) were held in Chinese prison cells where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day

Shortly afterward, Meng left on an Air China flight for Shenzhen, China, the location of Huawei’s headquarters.

Huawei is the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies. 

It has been a symbol of China´s progress in becoming a technological world power – and a subject of U.S. security and law enforcement concerns. Some analysts say Chinese companies have flouted international rules and norms and stolen technology.

The case against Meng stems from a January 2019 indictment from the Trump administration Justice Department that accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets and using a Hong Kong shell company called Skycom to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. 

The indictment also charged Meng herself with committing fraud by misleading the HSBC bank about the company’s business dealings in Iran.

The indictment came amid a broader Trump administration crackdown against Huawei over U.S. government concerns that the company´s products could facilitate Chinese spying. 

The administration cut off Huawei’s access to U.S. components and technology, including Google´s music and other smartphone services, and later barred vendors worldwide from using U.S. technology to produce components for Huawei.

The Biden White House, meanwhile, has kept up a hard line on Huawei and other Chinese corporations whose technology is thought to pose national security risks.

Huawei has repeatedly denied the U.S. government´s allegations and security concerns about its products.

Last month, a Canadian judge held off on ruling whether Meng should be extradited to the U.S. after a Canadian Justice Department lawyer wrapped up his case saying there was enough evidence to show she was dishonest and deserved to stand trial in the U.S.

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