China sentences Canadian citizen Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison

Foreign Affairs

As the extradition trial of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou draws to a close in Canada, China has upheld the death sentence of one Canadian citizen, and sentenced another to 11 years behind bars.

Michael Spavor and children
Michael Spavor and children. Image from, a website maintained by his family and friends.

In December 2018, China detained Canadian citizens Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur and tour guide to North Korea, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and adviser for the conflict resolution nonprofit the International Crisis Group.

  • Both men were accused of espionage, and have been held in mostly unknown circumstances with limited consular access since their arrests.
  • The arrests are widely thought to be in retaliation for the Canadian authorities’ arrest of Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 by request from the U.S. government, which happened on December 1, 2018.
  • The Chinese government has not revealed any proof of the alleged acts of espionage.

The final stretch of Meng’s extradition hearing is now in progress, and the Chinese government seems to be signalling that it will continue to use the detention of Canadian citizens as a form of pressure.

Yesterday, a Chinese court upheld a death sentence for another Canadian after an unsuccessful appeal.

  • In January 2019, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was handed the death sentence for drug trafficking.
  • He had originally been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for attempting to smuggle 222 kilograms (489 pounds) of methamphetamine from Dalian to Australia, but was given a death sentence in a one-day retrial.

Today, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined 50,000 yuan ($7,717) by the intermediate court of Dandong City (in Chinese) for “illegally providing national secrets” (非法提供国家秘密). He was also sentenced to deportation.

  • It is not clear if the two and a half years Spavor has already spent behind bars will count against the 11 years.
  • The deportation order is a bargaining chip for the Chinese government: based on precedent, an early deportation might be offered implicitly or explicitly in exchange for Canada giving friendly treatment to Meng Wanzhou.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Spavors’ sentence was “absolutely unacceptable” and called for his immediate release.
  • Diplomats from 25 countries (all western nations plus Japan) went to the Canadian embassy this morning to hear the sentencing and offer support.

There has been no announcement yet about the fate of Michael Kovrig, the other Canadian charged with espionage.

Also worth thinking about: “China’s harrowing combination of ‘hostage-taking’ and ‘death-threat’ diplomacy seemed to take the Western world by surprise,” writes Joanna Chiu: “This was because it had been widely ignorant of the many times China had taken foreigners of Asian descent as political prisoners.”