Canada was going to have some sort of a Huawei crisis in 2019, one way or another. And it was going to be explosive. The Chinese telecommunications giant was on a collision course with the federal government, and it was increasingly likely that there would be an ugly and intractable showdown with the Chinese private sector that would trigger a telling response from President Xi Jinping’s regime – a response that would strike a damaging blow to what remains of the Trudeau government’s once-hopeful China policy.
Three years after Justin Trudeau began his prime ministership with a bold bid for a new opening with China, including the negotiation of a comprehensive free-trade agreement, the Huawei crisis has revealed just how dramatically China’s government has changed. More importantly in this election year, the crisis has shown how the central idea behind the Liberals’ China policy – the ability to separate China’s authoritarian state from its more liberal private sector and other institutions, and deal with them through separate channels to the mutual benefit of both countries, without compromising liberal principles – has collapsed on itself.
The Huawei crisis, while inevitable, has exploded earlier and even more dramatically than many insiders had expected – and it was triggered in a way that took the Liberals by surprise. On Dec. 1, Canadian officials in Vancouver arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei Technologies’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder, on a request from the United States in an extradition case related to U.S. fraud charges tied to allegations that her company had traded with Iran.
This week, China escalated its punishments against Canada. A third Canadian, Ti-Anna Wang, was arrested and detained in China, along with her infant daughter (she was deported to South Korea). Two other Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, remain in detention without any charges or formal legal process and reportedly have endured tough interrogation. Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, had his 2018 prison sentence for drug smuggling escalated to a death sentence without due process. And Chinese officials spent the week firing accusations and threats at Ottawa.