‘A difficult choice’: Will Ottawa’s Huawei 5G decision consider fates of Canadians jailed in China?

As Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou prepares for the first phase of her extradition hearing, Canada is still trying to decide if the Chinese telecom company should be part of this country’s 5G network.

But is it possible to make that decision without considering the fate of the two Canadians jailed in China following Meng’s arrest? Or the overall dismal state of China-Canada relations?

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, both of whom were living in China, were arrested and accused of spying within a week of Meng’s arrest in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant for fraud. In the year since, China has taken aim at imports of Canadian canola and meat.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei — who is also Meng’s father — has done his best to keep his company above the fray of geopolitics, citing both a faith in the Canadian rule of law and a belief that there’s no connection between the arrests of Kovrig, Spavor and his daughter.

But with Meng about to step back into the spotlight and the decision on 5G still looming, it may prove hard to disentangle the cases.

University of Ottawa professor Wesley Wark says both the Canadian government and Huawei face a challenge in terms of the extent to which the variety of issues swirling around the company will shape public perception.

“The government has to find a way to say, ‘We are going to deal with the Huawei 5G case in its own dimension, in its own right, and we are not going to use it as a tool of leverage or a tool of counterstrike against China itself,” said Wark, a national security and intelligence expert.

Accused of lying to banks

Meng, who is Huawei’s chief financial officer, will appear in court starting Jan. 20 for a week-long hearing marking the first stage of the extradition process. Her court appearances to date have been for pretrial motions and attempts to get bail.

The 47-year-old is accused of lying to banks about Huawei’s connection to a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran — in turn placing Meng’s financiers at risk of breaking American law.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves the B.C. Supreme Court following a hearing. Her lawyers claim her rights were violated at the time of her arrest. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The upcoming hearing concerns the issue of double criminality and whether the offence Meng is charged with in the U.S. would be considered a crime in Canada. 

Her lawyers plan to argue that since Canada doesn’t have the same sanctions against Iran, Meng’s actions could not have led to any breach. The Crown will argue that fraud is fraud on both sides of the border, and that even Canadian banks are subject to American laws when money passes through the U.S. financial system.

Meng has denied the allegations and has declined to be interviewed in person.

Her father, on the other hand, has invited a steady stream of journalists to the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen to counter U.S. claims that Huawei is a Trojan horse for the Chinese government and can’t be trusted to build Western 5G networks.

Australia and Japan have also blocked Huawei while Germany and the U.K have yet to make a decision on the company’s participation in their 5G projects.

A decision from Canada is expected soon. The government has said little about its deliberations but has promised that the main goal is to ensure that networks are kept secure.

The CBC had accepted an invitation from Huawei to travel to China to meet with Ren in early January, but the interview was cancelled on the advice of Meng’s lawyers.

Canada ‘of symbolic importance’

The cancellation followed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appearance on the Quebec television show Salut Bonjour, where he said he had urged the U.S. not to sign a trade deal with China without settling “the question of Meng Wanzhou and the two Canadians.”

Kovrig and Spavor have been held in jail for more than a year, denied access to lawyers and family, but allowed one consular visit from Canadian diplomats per month.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that he will sign the first phase of a deal expected to reduce tariffs and boost Chinese purchases of U.S. goods on Jan. 15.

The U.S. launched a trade war against Beijing in 2018 over allegations of unfair trade practices. The fight has seen both nations place tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods.

A spokesperson for Huawei Canada says the company takes heart in the independence of the judicial system when it comes to the legal proceedings facing Meng Wanzhou. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Prof. Paul Evans, with the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, says Canadians should separate “emotionally and politically” the three different aspects of Huawei’s involvement in Canada: Meng Wanzhou’s arrest; Kovrig and Spavor; and 5G.

“The reality is that Huawei is a China-based company, but that it was not responsible [for Kovrig and Spavor’s arrests].”

Wark says the Trudeau government may find solutions in a statement last summer from the U.K. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee that says cutting Huawei out of the 5G grid would make the country less safe.

The statement says the question of security “is not about one company or one country” — but about the need to counter threats from any quarter.

To that extent, limiting the field of 5G contenders to Nokia and Ericsson — Huawei’s competition — would “increase over-dependence and reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards,” the committee’s statement reads.

“Therefore including a third company — even if you may have some security concerns about them and will have to set a higher bar for security measures within the system — will, counter-intuitively, result in higher overall security.”

Evans says Huawei’s nightmare scenario would be getting forced out of Canada as part of an American-led campaign to draw a “technological iron curtain” with Chinese tech companies.

“Canada is a very small part of Huawei’s global activities but of symbolic importance and the site of research activities that are of real value to the company,” he said.

No desire to ‘make matters worse’

Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs, says it’s understandable for the public to conflate 5G questions with trade tensions and Meng’s court case.

He says all the company can do is rely on a clean security record in Canada, the independence of the judicial system handling Meng’s case and the wisdom of politicians when it comes to diplomacy.

Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei is Meng’s father. He has said he does not blame Canada for her predicament. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’re a technology company. We sell network equipment and we sell smartphones, and as much as possible we try to stay out of the non-business factors that have emerged in Canada related to the operation of our business in this country,” he said.

“I think that everyone is trying to do the same. No one wants to make this more complicated because making it more complicated will only make matters worse.”

‘Chinese law is humane’

When it comes to 5G, Wark says the Canadian government can count on some kind of negative reaction no matter what it decides.

He says a “no” won’t help Kovrig and Spavor or China-Canada relations, and while a “yes” might soothe tensions between the two countries, it won’t settle Meng’s extradition case and may alienate the U.S.

“The government really faces a difficult choice with Huawei,” he said.

“Because there is a lot at stake in that decision around Huawei and 5G, the key determinant is not going to be: ‘How is this going to play in terms of the two Michaels?’ They just can’t afford to do it that way.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to make a decision soon on whether Huawei will have a role in developing Canada’s 5G wireless network. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Both Wark and Evans say Huawei has done a good job of trying to focus attention on the debate over cybersecurity and show the company can be trusted.

In interviews, Ren has said he’d be willing to defy the Chinese state should he be asked to betray the interests of customers, even if it meant damage to the company or legal action from the government.

He told a CNN reporter he’d be willing to go to jail if it came to that.

“Chinese law is humane and guarantees adequate living conditions for senior officials and executives,” Ren said in an interview with Matt Rivers last March.

“And even if I went to jail, the conditions would not be as harsh as in some other cells. In addition, all dinners are free, so this isn’t a problem for me, and I’m not worried about it at all.”

But then Ren may have a very different view of the Chinese legal system than Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

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