This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
By Charles Burton, November 27, 2023
There is a deep sadness to reports that Michael Spavor feels he was badly wronged by his fellow former political prisoner Michael Kovrig and, by extension, political officers at Canada’s embassy in Beijing and their masters in Ottawa.
Spavor reportedly wants millions in compensation from the Canadian government for its alleged complicity in his detention in his Chinese prison ordeal. If this ends up in court, Kovrig and his superiors would have an opportunity to defend themselves against these allegations, but Beijing propagandists are already using them to vindicate the appalling treatment of Kovrig and Spavor — a gross violation of international law — by a ruthless regime that arrested them to pressure Canada into releasing Chinese Communist Party figure Meng Wanzhou from house arrest in Vancouver.
While few specifics are known about Spavor’s claims, media reports depict a connection to Kovrig’s former job at Canada’s embassy in Beijing, and later with the International Crisis Group think tank, roles in which he would allegedly meet with people in China, engage them in his fluent Mandarin, and mine the conversations for nuggets of insight into China’s political or economic affairs.
Chinese authorities, of course, don’t like such activities. One expects that Kovrig and his superiors, both in government and the ICG, would have been well aware that this type of work would irritate Beijing, thus the danger of arbitrary detention on trumped-up charges was always there whenever he visited China without the protection of a diplomatic passport. And so it was.
One particularly troubling aspect of this sort of activity is the risk it presents to people who might unknowingly be sources for these information-gathering practices. Apparently Spavor and Kovrig routinely got together for drinks and sessions of good-humoured conversation. But friendships with diplomats imply that observations shared in a bar can end up the next morning in a report to Ottawa, and on to the Five Eyes. Was this possibility lost on Spavor? Was Kovrig perhaps not as forthcoming as he could have been about the full dimensions of their chats?
And there is always the possibility that China’s Ministry of State Security has access to Canadian diplomatic communications, which led them to open a file on the two.
Spavor ran a business, Paektu Cultural Exchange, that facilitated sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with North Korea. These pricey tours necessitated the transfer of badly-needed foreign currency into North Korea, arguably helping to enable the repressive Pyongyang regime. Perhaps more intriguing, in the course of his work Spavor developed an unlikely rapport with the third-generation Kim family dictator, Kim Jong Un, and was photographed jet-skiing and drinking cocktails with him on a private yacht. It is very plausible that China strongly disapproved of their junior proxy Korean communist dictator cavorting with non-Chinese foreign friends, hence his arrest.
Troublingly, Canadians — who were transfixed and infuriated by the two Michaels’ incarceration — have had little news about Kovrig and Spavor’s China nightmare since their sudden release in September 2021, just hours after Canada released Meng. One wonders if Ottawa really did enough to incentivize China’s Communist authorities to send them home sooner, or if there were other factors in Canada’s murky relationship with Beijing that took priority over what was perhaps downplayed behind closed doors as just another consular matter, one of many that are de facto subordinated to trade and political interests.
We may never see any Global Affairs Canada officials or former diplomats giving public evidence in a Canadian court to defend against Spavor’s accusation. To be sure, much of what goes on between Canada and China — indeed, within our own government internally — is kept from us by the secretive walls of the Security of Information Act.
Perhaps Spavor will be given a big whack of taxpayer money in an out-of-court settlement laced with ironclad nondisclosure provisions. One thing is for sure though. The Chinese authorities who so brutally persecuted him will, as usual, get off scot-free.
Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, and former diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing.