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The Huawei hostages

The Huawei hostages


After almost three years, a tit-for-tat row over the arrest of a Huawei executive for fraud has finally come to an end. Two men called Michael paid a heavy price.

Claudia Williams, Narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, how two guys – both called Michael – ended up in jail after a row between North America and China. 


Three years ago, at an airport in Vancouver, in Canada, a high-profile drama started to unfold. 

It began with a businesswoman called Meng Wanzhou. 

She was stopping off in Canada waiting for a plane to take her to a meeting in Mexico City. 

But before she could get on her next flight, she was arrested by Canadian police. 

The United States had asked the Canadians to keep an eye out for her because they wanted to put her on trial for fraud. 

And that arrest? It caused a real stir:

Canada’s arrest of one of the highest ranking executives at Huawei has placed the country in the middle of a complicated dispute between the US and China.

It is the arrest that sent shock waves around the world and through markets as Mounties arrested Meng Wanzhou the chief financial officer of Huawei, the Chinese tech giant.

And there is no way that this arrest will not be looked at as a political move in China.

Because Meng Wanzhou [Mung Won-djo] is not just any businesswoman, she’s the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, a giant Chinese telecoms company – and the daughter of its chief executive. 

*** Pause ***

As you can imagine, the Chinese authorities were really not happy about her arrest. 

Meng Wanzhou is basically Chinese tech royalty. 

And ten days after she was detained, two Canadian businessmen – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – were arrested in China on trumped-up spying charges. 

“Now report that a Canadian is being detained in China. We’re talking about a former diplomat for this country. We have a picture of him for you right here. His name is Michael Kovrig.”

“Beijing is now holding two Canadians, apparently doubling the reprisals for Canada’s arrest of a rich and powerful Chinese executive.”

The Chinese have always denied that arresting the two Michaels had anything to do with what happened to Meng Wanzhou.

But nobody really believed that. 

The timing of their detention was just too convenient. 

It looked a lot like retaliation. 

And over the last three years, the fortunes of the two Michaels have risen and fallen with the ups and downs in Meng Wanzhou’s case.


A month ago, her extradition case finally made it to court in Canada…

…Meanwhile, in China, Michael Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison…and another Canadian citizen who was accused of drug trafficking charges was sentenced to death

These sentencing decisions weren’t happening by chance. 

“This verdict comes just one day after another Chinese court upheld a death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling. The timing not lost on Michael’s his family, and certainly not lost on the Canadian government.”

But on Friday, last week, everything changed. 

Meng Wanzhou struck a deal with American prosecutors. She admitted wrongdoing on the fraud charges, the extradition case was dropped and she was allowed to travel back home to China. 

Things quickly turned around for the two Michaels too. Just as Meng Wanzhou’s jet was taking off from Vancouver… they were on a plane bound for Canada. 

Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcomed them home: 

“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal. For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace.”

Justin Trudeau, CBC News

And their families spoke movingly about what it meant to have them back: 

“It is, um, overwhelming. I, I find myself at a loss for words, because the moment is so, so incredible. It’s it’s finally here after 1,020 days. It is finally here. Michael is in Canada. He is safe. He’s healthy.”

Just like that – almost in the blink of an eye – a three year diplomatic spat came to an end.

But this case always had more to it…and the underlying tensions that caused it in 2018 are still simmering away…

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Huawei has been at the centre of fierce rivalry between China and western countries for years. 

And always for the same reason: is it so close to the Chinese government that it could actually be part of their spying operations?

In 2018 the US, Australia and New Zealand decided they’d ban the use of Huawei’s 5G hardware on their telecoms grids, because of national security concerns.  

“The U S government argues Huawei is too close to the Chinese government and letting the company build telecom networks leaves those networks vulnerable to Chinese espionage.”

PBS News

Huawei says it’s not in cahoots with Chinese spy agencies. 

But… it does have close government ties. And in the West, the suspicions about Huawei and its government connections haven’t gone away. 

Just this week, a ban on some of Huawei’s 5G tech is coming into effect here in the UK. 

But Huawei had been this jewel in the crown for the Chinese state – a Chinese company that was amazingly successful internationally. 

So the crackdown on Huawei by western powers was a real sting. 

It started under Donald Trump. And if you factor in his hostile views about China…and the trade war that was happening between the US and China at the time….it’s really no surprise that Chinese authorities saw Meng Wanzhou’s arrest as politically motivated.

And that’s what they think now, even after she’s been released. 

A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said last week [quote]: “The Meng Wanzhou incident is a political frame-up and persecution against a Chinese citizen, an act designed to hobble Chinese high-tech companies.”

And because the Chinese believed one of their most important businesswomen had effectively been taken hostage by the United States, they might not have had too many qualms about retaliating in kind. 

An eye for an eye.

So poor Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig became pawns in a geopolitical chess match. Thankfully for them, it’s finally over. But the bigger game will play and play for decades to come. 

Today’s episode was written and produced by Ella Hill.