China gives hero’s welcome to Meng Wanzhou, freed in apparent prisoner swap with Canadian hostages

Foreign Affairs

The U.S. deal that allowed Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to leave Canada and escape extradition was swiftly followed by China’s release of two Canadian detainees, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The apparent prisoner swap resolved a pressure point in U.S.-China relations, but only heightened concerns about China’s “hostage diplomacy.”

michael spavor and michael kovrig in exchange for meng wanzhou -- illustration
Illustration by Alex Santafé

An intense diplomatic standoff between China and the U.S. and Canada came to an end on Friday, September 24, when an apparent prisoner swap was completed: Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 was allowed to leave Canada, where she was out on bail in Vancouver, and hours later, the former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were released from prison in China.

  • Meng struck a deal to admit “wrongdoing without guilt,” acknowledging that some of “Huawei’s business dealings were in breach of U.S. sanctions on Iran” — but the U.S. agreed to drop all charges against her after December 1, 2022, if she abides by the terms of the deal, per the SCMP.
  • 1,028 days earlier, on December 1, 2018, Meng had been arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the request of U.S. officials, who had been investigating since April 2018 whether Huawei was violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. A lengthy, detailed, and public extradition trial followed.
  • China responded to Meng’s arrest with blatant hostage-taking: First Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat and then adviser for the conflict resolution nonprofit the International Crisis Group, then Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur and North Korea expert, were disappeared in China in the weeks after Meng’s arrest. They were later charged with espionage, but their trials were held in secret and no evidence was ever publicly presented.
  • Kovrig and Spavor were released “within hours” of Meng striking her deal — in the words of legal scholar Donald Clarke to the New York Times, Beijing is “not even making a pretense of a pretense that this was anything but a straight hostage situation.”

Meng given hero’s welcome back home

Meng’s return to China was covered live by state TV, while the tallest building in Shenzhen, where her plane landed, “lit up with scrolling slogan ‘Welcome Home, Meng Wanzhou’ across its facade,” per Bloomberg.

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Social media lit up in celebration of Meng’s return, reports What’s on Weibo, with the top trending hashtags receiving billions of views. “Many called her a national hero, and hailed her return as a symbol of China’s victory over the West,” per CNN.

  • “After more than 1,000 days of suffering, I finally returned to the embrace of my motherland,” Meng said in a brief speech on a red carpet in Shenzhen, referring to herself (in Chinese) as an “ordinary Chinese citizen.”
  • “She was arrested because of a rising China,” said state media Xinhua, adding, “So was her release!”

Why was Meng released?

Contra Xinhua, the answer might lie partly in legal details: According to two sources cited by the NYT, neither Meng nor the U.S. Justice Department “felt entirely sure they would win the fight over extraditing her,” so there was incentive for both parties to strike a deal.

  • The fact that the U.S. is continuing its criminal case against Huawei, despite giving up on Meng, may further support “an inference that the decision was in part based on uncertainty regarding extradition outcome,” legal scholar Maggie Lewis noted.

But politics also could have played a part: A demand to “drop the extradition of Meng Wanzhou” was one of the key points of a “list of wrongdoings” that China gave the U.S. back in July. And though the Biden administration officially holds that the Justice Department deal with Meng was independently arranged, the Wall Street Journal writes that it “demonstrated a little-noticed pragmatic dimension to the relationship.”

  • Regardless of whether the White House coordinated the deal with Meng, it resolves a major pressure point in U.S.-China relations, and comes after several other moves to resolve irritants in the relationship: “U.S. consulates in China have approved tens of thousands of visas for Chinese students; the Justice Department in July withdrew charges against five visiting researchers accused of hiding their affiliations with China’s military; and U.S. agencies have halted actions against Chinese technology products the Trump administration had labeled national-security risks,” such as WeChat and TikTok.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Meng Wanzhou had been under house arrest in Vancouver. She was in fact out on bail, and able to travel freely around the Vancouver area within designated hours and parameters.