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Moral Lessons from the Meng Wanzhou Affair?

airplane boarding on Xi'an airport runway

Now that Meng Wanzhou has finally returned home to China and Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been released from Chinese custody, a situation has been brought to a close which incited a great deal of moral controversy. The two Canadians were believed to be taken into detention in retribution for the arrest and detention of Meng, and given the state of relations between the U.S. and Canada, many wondered whether simply releasing Meng in exchange for the release of the two Michaels would simply be a better alternative. Last year, I covered some of the ethical concerns involved with this situation. But in light of the fact that the affair has now been settled, what is the status of these ethical issues in hindsight?

To briefly recap the situation, Meng was arrested by the RCMP in December 2018 at the request of the United States who charged her with conspiracy to commit fraud. After the U.S. requested extradition, the matter was placed before Canadian courts. That same month China detained two Canadians named Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who were later charged with espionage. The move by China has been taken to be retaliation for the arrest of Wanzhou after they threatened “grave consequences” for Canada and despite the fact that China insists that the arrest of the Michaels is unrelated. And, while Meng was placed on house arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor while living in a Vancouver mansion, the two Michaels were subjected to hours of interrogation every day, were not permitted to go outside, and were limited in their ability to talk to their families.

As this situation stretched from weeks into years, many Canadians took the position that Canada should have resisted American calls for the arrest and extradition of Meng, or should have released her in exchange for the release of the Canadians. This proposal created a great deal of moral debate about the rule of law, arbitrary detention, and the potential precedents such a move might set in the world of “hostage politics.”

But, now the situation has been resolved. On September 24th, the Department of Justice announced that a deferred prosecution agreement had been reached with Meng which led to the withdrawal of its extradition request against her. That day, Meng boarded a plane and arrived in China after spending more than 1000 days under house arrest. On the same day, in an apparently unrelated sequence of events, China released the two Michaels “for medical reasons” who were then flown home to Canada.

It is worth noting that many believe that this situation was sparked by the United States as a politically motivated tool in their trade war with China. This is supported by remarks made by then President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who suggested that they could intervene in the case for the sake of securing trade and by the fact that the arrest was unprecedented. China’s position, in response, is that this was politically motivated and that Canada conspired with the United States. Legal experts on extradition have called the case against Meng a “silly” “political type of enterprise.” Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien claimed that the “United States played a trick on Canada by forcing Ottawa to arrest Ms. Meng,” and many more prominent Canadians called on Meng to be released and a prisoner exchange arranged or who shared the view that this was a political matter and not a legal one. Thus, Canadians were faced with the dilemma of either releasing Meng and angering the United States or holding Meng and endangering its own citizens.

As I noted in my previous article on the subject, the Government of Canada’s position has always been that this is a legal matter falling under an independent judiciary, even accusing China of failing to understand such a concept. Meng, so the claim goes, had been charged with a crime and the extradition and trial process must be followed to preserve “the rule of law.” Thus, it would be a violation of such principles to offer to release Meng arbitrarily in order to secure a “hostage exchange.” A second argument was made that agreeing to release Meng in exchange for the two Michaels would set a bad precedent. Justin Trudeau argued that such an exchange would send a message to China that all they or anyone else had to do was arrest Canadians in order to pressure the Canadian Government and that this would put millions at risk.

So, how did this situation resolve itself? After several months of court proceedings the Justice Department offered Meng a deferred prosecution deal on the condition that she admit guilt in misrepresenting efforts of Huawei to circumvent sanctions against Iran. According to the Americans, there was “no link” between the deferral agreement and the desire to secure the release of the Michaels. After which, she was released in Canada and sent back to China. Simultaneously, after securing the “guilt” of the two Michaels for espionage weeks prior, China decided to release the two Michaels on bail for “health reasons” and they were subsequently sent back to Canada. Canada, the U.S. and China have all insisted that there was no deal despite the entire affair seeming “highly choreographed.”

Indeed, many see the entire affair as nothing but a prisoner exchange or “hostage swap.” Of course, we may not know for sure what exactly happened. The U.S. claims that the decision was reached by the Department of Justice free from political tampering. China claims that they too were following the rule of law in finding the two Michaels guilty after their confession and later releasing them. But if this just was a prisoner swap in the end, what does this mean for those who wished to stand on principle or prevent the establishment of a precedent?

First, let’s consider that each side is being truthful: the resolution to this case was purely a legal matter, and that this was, as some believe, a triumph for the rule of law. It is difficult to see how. There is no legal consensus that the case against Meng wasn’t politically motivated to begin with. So, the fact that the issue was settled in a manner consistent with legal procedure doesn’t support the idea that this was a victory for the rule of law. If anything, we are still left with questions about whether the law is being used in an arbitrary way for political ends. But, there is also the public perception of the affair to consider as well. Given the seemingly suspicious nature of the exchange, one wonders whether the public will see this as a success for the rule of law?

On the other hand, if there was some sort of coordination; if, in the end, this situation was only settled by an exchange, then what is the point of standing on principle for the rule of law or because you are worried about setting a bad precedent? To what ends did it serve to insist on such principles just to engage in an exchange anyways? Could a great deal of suffering have been avoided to achieve a similar result? Did, at the end of the day, the detention of Meng and the two Michaels actually achieve anything as morally important as it ultimately cost in moral terms? As my previous article covered, it was always a murky argument that the rule of law would not permit the Canadian Government to facilitate Meng’s release, so the notion that because Canada stuck it out until legal proceedings could conclude that this was thereby a victory of the rule of law is not certain either.

Either way, this doesn’t seem like a great principled victory for the rule of law. Perhaps if there is a moral lesson to be learned for Canada it is that principles can be great ideals, but that their application must factor in the situation they are applied to. This is particularly true if, as in this case, it seems that following the rule of law in the way the Canadian government chose to conceive of such a principle only served to deny Canadians their rights for years.

The Ethical Dilemma of Extraditing Meng Wanzhou

photograph of Meng Wanzhou on a moblie phone at business function

When students take an introductory ethics course, they are often given thought experiments where they are asked to consider whether it is morally acceptable to sacrifice a few for the interests of the many. Often these thought experiments are fanciful — a running trolley, a South American dictator telling you to choose one person to die rather than twenty — but problems like this can reflect real world choices that must be made. The recent example of the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou is one such case where the ethical road ahead is unclear and solving the dilemma may require sacrifice in the name of the “greater good.”

Wanzhou is the deputy chair of the board and CFO of Huawei, the company founded by her father Ren Zhengfei. In late 2018 she was arrested by the RCMP in Vancouver at the request of the United Stated for conspiracy to commit fraud. The case is owing to the close links between Huawei and Skycom, a company that claimed to be a fully independent but that may be entirely controlled by Huawei. Meng is charged with engaging in a scheme to obtain goods and technology as well as transferring money through Skycom in violation of international sanctions against Iran. The United States has formally requested extradition of Meng, with the matter now before Canadian courts.

The case is complicated by several other important factors. The Chinese government protested to the Canadian ambassador and threatened “grave consequences” for the arrest. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been arrested and detailed in China for endangering state security in a move seen as retaliation against the arrest of Meng. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the arrests arbitrary. Meng has been released on bail, but wears an ankle monitor and has surrendered her passport. She is living in Vancouver in a $13 million-dollar mansion. Kovig and Spavor on the other hand were interrogated for six to eight hours a day for months, kept under 24-hour artificial lighting without being able to go outside, and were only able to have monthly consular meetings without being able to talk to friends or family. There is also the case of Robert Schellenberg, initially found guilty of smuggling drugs and sentenced to 15 years only to be hastily retried and sentenced to death. It’s been intimated that the fate of these three Canadians Kovig, Spavor, and Schellenberg rests on the Canadian government’s treatment of Meng.

Meng’s extradition case recently suffered a setback after a British Columbia court ruled that the charges met the double criminality criteria for extradition. Meng’s legal team argued that since Canada did not have sanctions similar to those the United States had against Iran, she isn’t being charged with something that would be a crime in Canada. The ruling held that the charges are about fraud, which is a crime in Canada. Despite this, the Canadian government possesses the ability to set Meng free. Under extradition law, Canada’s justice minister may at any time intervene and withdraw the government’s support for the case which would allow Meng to return home and possibly get the release of detained Canadians and smooth out relations.

In the meantime, there is very little upside for Canada to detain Meng. Canada-Chinese relations have been hurt by the affair, and experts have claimed that this is likely to affect trade talks and lead to a reduction in tourism and investment in the Canadian economy. China has apparently not tried to retaliate against the U.S. due to their desire to improve their relationship. Canada, meanwhile, has been squeezed between the U.S. and China in an issue that some experts believe is a direct result of their ongoing trade war. Unsurprisingly, there are a significant number of Canadians who would rather be rid of the matter. In 2019 a poll found that 45% of Canadians believe that Canada should have resisted the U.S. request and not arrested Meng at all. A group of over a dozen prominent former Canadian politicians and policy advisors from different political parties have issued an open letter calling on the Trudeau government to release Meng in the hopes of securing the release of Kovig and Spavor, even if it means straining U.S.-Canada relations.

So what reason is there for Canada to not release Meng immediately? One of the reasons, and the one touted by the Trudeau government, is that it would be inappropriate for the government to intervene with a matter before the courts and that the rule of law should be respected. Trudeau has stated that “Canada has an independent judiciary and these processes will unfold independently of any political pressure, including by foreign governments.” Indeed, the reliance on an independent judiciary to settle the matter has been labelled a win for the rule of law. Despite this claim, those seeking Meng’s release have cited the opinion of a lawyer well-versed in extradition proceedings who notes that government discretion is “explicitly codified” in the law and that intervention would not endanger judicial independence and would be consistent with the rule of law.

But the Trudeau government, and others, have also argued that releasing Meng on the condition of securing the release of Spovor and Kovig would set a bad precedent. The government believes that cancelling the extradition process for Meng would put “millions” of Canadians in danger. Trudeau has argued that

“The idea of solving a short-term situation by creating a precedent that demonstrates to China that all they or another country has to do is randomly arrest a handful of Canadians to put political pressure on a government to do what (they) want…would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every year.”

On the other hand, the idea that this would set a precedent smells of a slippery slope fallacy. One way to avoid situations like this would be to practice more restraint regarding who is (and is not) detained. Also, we need to consider the unique qualities particular to the situation. How many nations would likely try to detain traveling Canadians if they have a dispute with the Canadian government? Would releasing Meng in this case actually cause this to happen again? What countries would likely do this? What issues would likely prompt governments to do this? While we are considering these things, we may also consider how a concept like “rule of law” is interpreted. As was pointed out during the standoff with indigenous groups back in February, the concept is not singular, universal, or absolute. What are the assumptions we make in this case when we interpret the concept of “rule of law” in this case?

There is also the matter of Spovor and Kovig and whether they may be sacrificed for such principles and precedents. Kovig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla does not agree with the government’s refusal to intervene, arguing that we can both protect Canadians and secure the release of her husband. She notes, “There is no cost-free solution. We have to pay a price. The question becomes, who pays the price, and at the moment Michael Kovrig and Michael Spovor are paying that price.”

Finally, there is also the risk of violating agreements with the U.S. over extradition. Canada and the U.S. are allies and it makes sense to not antagonize America for the benefit of China. However, given the U.S. administration’s “America First” motto, one wonders whether the favor would be returned if the shoe were on the other foot. Indeed, there is a sense that “Washington is using Canada in its trade battle with China.” Even President Trump has mused about using Meng as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, suggesting that this process may not be about the rule of law at all, despite John Bolton’s recent claim that the criminal charges are not politically motivated.

As Nadjibulla noted, there is no cost-free solution, and this is essentially at the heart of all moral dilemmas. The goals Canada is trying to achieve in ending the situation are incompatible. What combination of ends are the right balance is difficult, and it will require determining how much value we place on a given conception of the rule of law, economic gains and losses, creating political tensions (what kinds? with who?), creating possible dangerous precedents, and the suffering of those few who are detained.