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International relations

Standoff over Huawei's Meng hits 2-year mark: 5 things to know

Canada eyes Biden factor as two of its citizens face spy charges in China

Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou leaves her home to attend a court hearing in Vancouver on Nov. 23.   © Reuters

OTTAWA -- "Hostage diplomacy" has become a household phrase in Canada in the two years -- to the day on Tuesday -- since Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a warrant for extradition to the U.S.

China detained two Canadian men shortly after and continues to hold them on espionage charges. This is widely believed to be its way of retaliating.

While Meng fights in court, some say the dynamics of the case may change when U.S. President-elect Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump. At the same time, despite widespread agreement in Canada about following the rule of law, a "free Meng" movement is making noise.

This is not only legal and political -- it is personal for Ren Zhengfei, the CEO and founder of Huawei. Meng is his daughter.

Here are five things to know as the standoff drags on into a third year.

How did this start?

The U.S. seeks Meng's extradition on fraud and conspiracy charges based on a PowerPoint presentation she made to a senior HSBC executive on Aug. 22, 2013, in the back room of a Hong Kong restaurant.

Meng was answering HSBC's questions about news reports associating Huawei with Skycom Tech, a company said to have engaged in U.S.-sanctions-violating business in Iran. Meng is alleged to have falsely denied that Huawei controlled Skycom.

That is how Heather Holmes, associate chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court where Meng is contesting extradition, described the crux of the matter.

Meng was named in a U.S. Department of Justice indictment against Huawei, Skycom and Huawei Device USA. It said that based on Meng's "misrepresentations," HSBC continued its relationship with Huawei, exposing itself to significant civil liability and criminal penalties.

Just days after Meng's arrest, Canada's "two Michaels" -- Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor -- were arrested in China. Earlier this year, they were formally charged with espionage offenses that carry the death penalty.

Kovrig, a senior adviser on Northeast Asia with the International Crisis Group think tank, remains in a detention center in Beijing. Spavor, who ran a company specializing in tourism and investment in North Korea, is being held in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Protesters call for the release of Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside the court hearing Meng's case in Vancouver last year.   © Reuters

Where does Meng's case stand?

Meng, 48, has lost and won in court. Justice Holmes ruled that a "double criminality" rule was met: Meng's alleged conduct "would have amounted to fraud" in Canada.

In late October, however, the judge agreed with Meng that the record of the case for extradition should include an omission from a summary of the PowerPoint presentation. It stated that Huawei's engagement with Skycom was "normal and controllable business cooperation."

This lends some weight to the Meng side's contention that the U.S. misrepresented evidence, but it was not enough for Holmes to dismiss the case. Meng remains under house arrest at her Vancouver-area mansion.

The court proceedings so far are a prelude to hearings on Meng's allegations that the judicial process has been abused and her civil liberties violated under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Meng says Canadian officials committed several violations in the course of her "arbitrary detention": a three-hour delay in her arrest; seizure of her electronic devices for criminal investigation under the guise of a routine immigration examination; compelling her to provide passwords; and failing to advise her of the reason for detention and of her right to counsel.

In recent weeks the court has been hearing testimony from the border security and police officers who detained and arrested Meng.

How have Canada's prime minister and others reacted?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has steadfastly insisted this is a matter for the court to decide.

When China hinted this past June that a swap for Spavor and Kovrig was a possibility -- thereby implying that their arrests were indeed related to Meng -- Trudeau was quick to reject the idea. His views do not appear to have changed since.

"If you're a country of the rule of law, if you're a country of values, you need to stick up for those," he said during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in mid-November. "And that's exactly what we're doing."

Conversely, the families and colleagues of the Michaels have made fervent calls for intervention. Former diplomats, politicians, and academics have also banded together to argue the case was political from the outset and should be halted.

But two parliamentarians involved with grassroots peace groups organizing "free Meng" demonstrations were recently condemned by colleagues. One said they amplify "Chinese Communist propaganda."

Protest groups were planning a "cross-Canada day of action" for Tuesday to push for Meng's release, with announced locations stretching from Montreal in the east to Vancouver in the west. It was unclear what kind of numbers they would attract with their argument that Canada's justice minister should end the extradition process to "positively reset Canada-China relations, and steer Canada off the trajectory of a U.S.-led new cold war with China."

Meanwhile, Conservative opposition leader Erin O'Toole argues Trudeau underestimated the fallout from the arrest of "the equivalent of state royalty in China," including agricultural trade penalties. But unlike the groups who want to see Meng freed, O'Toole has called for getting tougher on China.

Beijing, for its part, continues to take shots at Canada. "No matter how hard the Canadian side tries to hide the truth and mislead public opinion, it cannot escape its own responsibility" for Meng's detention, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in mid-November. "We once again urge the Canadian side to meet China halfway, take measures to correct mistakes, immediately and properly resolve the Meng Wanzhou incident and make concrete efforts to bring China-Canada relations back on the right track."

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa in 2016.   © Reuters

Will the Biden administration make a difference?

President Trump apparently undermined Trudeau's rule-of-law position by indicating a willingness to use Meng as leverage in trade negotiations with China.

President-elect Biden is considered more predictable and is expected to organize a united front of allies to stand up to China on trade and other matters. Trudeau and Biden spoke about working on China's "arbitrary detention" of the two Michaels in their first post-U.S. election call.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said in an interview that it will be easier for Canada to count on support from Biden. The new president will also want to resume dialogue with China on many issues and "lower the temperature."

Saint-Jacques said one option, albeit unlikely, is for Biden to drop the charges against Meng, noting it was highly unusual to proceed against an individual in this kind of case.

What happens next?

Court hearings on the abuse-of-process arguments are scheduled for February, and the case is expected to run into April 2021.

If the court rules that Meng's charter rights were violated, the U.S. could appeal or let it go. If the court rules against Meng, she will likely appeal.

Short of political intervention, it could still take years before the case is resolved.

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