Sieren′s China: No transparency in China′s arrest of Canadians | In Depth | DW | 24.01.2019
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In Depth

Sieren's China: No transparency in China's arrest of Canadians

The arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou is an example of the US using the law selectively. But the treatment of arrested Canadians in China is damaging Beijing's image, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

What would happen if Germany and China were to have a serious disagreement? Which German would be first? That's a question some Germans in Beijing have been asking themselves since the arrest of two Canadians — widely seen as retaliation for Canada arresting Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under US pressure and intended to exercise pressure on the Canadian government.

While Meng has been released from jail and is now under house arrest, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and analyst for International Crisis Group and Michael Spavor who runs cultural exchanges with North Korea, have been in a Chinese jail for weeks. The official reason for their detention is that they are being held on "suspicion of engaging in activities that endanger national security."

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are still being held in Chinese jails

Read more: Sieren's China: Huawei and diplomatic dynamite

Rule of law as a political instrument

In mid-January, another Canadian, who was already in jail, was sentenced to death in China. Robert Schellenberg, believed to be 36, had received a 15-year jail term in November for drug smuggling after proceedings that lasted two and a half years. In 2014, he was caught in possession of over 220 kilos of methamphetamine. Recently, after just one day, his jail term became a death sentence. Although no new evidence was put forward, the court said the original sentence had been too lenient. For many, it is clear that the rule of law in China is used as a political instrument.

There is no doubt that the United States started this conflict, and its decision to call for the arrest of the 46-year-old daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has also been controversial. The question is whether a can country enact laws that impact other sovereign states without international consensus.

Meng Wanzhou being escorted to a car by her personal security detail (picture-alliance/AP/D. Dyck)

Meng's arrest in Canada set off the international dispute

To put it bluntly, it's as if Washington were to declare it illegal to listen to ABBA on an iPhone, told the world about the policy and then used its influence to arrest people who violate this law outside the United States.

Read more: Huawei scrambles to untangle crossed lines

Because Ottawa willingly agreed to Washington's selective application of its law by arresting Meng, Canada has lost its reputation of being the safest haven in the West for Chinese citizens. Many Chinese people have benefitted in recent years from Canada's benevolent capital laws and comparatively open real estate market, so much so that it's not uncommon to hear people speaking Mandarin or Cantonese in major Canadian cities. Banks, construction firms and even hospitals have adjusted to customers from the Far East. Chinese entrepreneurs significantly contribute to the Canadian economy. In Vancouver, the second generation of the Chinese diaspora flaunts its wealth so carelessly that it has its own reality show: "Ultra Rich Asian Girls."

Now Canada has damaged that positive image.

Frank Sieren (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl)

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Read more: China slams Huawei 'hysteria'

Canadian products still popular

Nevertheless, what happened in Canada is very different from what happened in China. The treatment of the Huawei founder's daughter might well be frustrating, but it has been transparent. This is not the case in China. The Foreign Ministry can only call for China's rule of law and sovereignty to be respected so many times. There is still a lot to be discussed. Granted, China needs time to develop and there are cultural differences. But without transparency, no state can be based on the rule of law.

Read more: Analyst: China has to be put in the category of a 'rogue state'

Many people in Beijing and other Chinese cities do not seem particularly interested in either case. Meng's arrest is not so important that they will stop buying Canadian products. On the contrary, Canada Goose jackets are the most fashionable coat of the winter. The company opened their first flagship store in Beijing at the end of last year. Three days after the opening, customers were still prepared to wait for over an hour in the cold to get in. In Hong Kong, where the temperature rarely falls below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), people also queued in front of the company's store in the IFC mall. So, there seems to have been little attention paid to the calls for a boycott of Canadian goods that made their way to social and state media.

Lines outside the Canada Goose store in Beijing (picture-alliance/dpa/Su Weizhong)

Many in Beijing wanted to see the new Canada Goose store

There seems to be no intention of Canadians boycotting Chinese goods either. In neither country do consumers seem interested in becoming involved in their governments' power struggle. This is perhaps what's most surprising about this latest showdown between one emerging global power and one that seems to be on its way out.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 25 years.

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