Second Canadian goes on trial in China on spying charges in tit-for-tat case

Jim Nickel, Canada's No. 2 diplomat in China
Jim Nickel, center, Canada’s No. 2 diplomat in China, and other foreign diplomats gather outside a Beijing courthouse Monday.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

A second Canadian citizen held for more than two years on spying charges in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei executive went on trial in Beijing on Monday.

The proceedings against analyst and former diplomat Michael Kovrig follows an initial hearing in the case of entrepreneur and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor in the northeastern city of Dandong on Friday.

Canadian diplomats have been refused access to trials and told that hearings would be held behind closed doors because of alleged national security concerns. Diplomats and journalists have shown up nonetheless to seek information or show support.


Outside Beijing’s No. 2 Intermediate Court, Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said he had been told the trial had begun, but was barred from entry in what he said was a violation of China’s international and bilateral treaty obligations.

“Michael Kovrig has been detained for more than two years now. He’s been arbitrarily detained, and now we see that the court process itself is not transparent,” Nickel told reporters. “We’re very troubled by this, but we thank those who have come out from the embassies here in Beijing and the international support that we’ve had for Michael, for Canada and the call that many of us are making for their immediate release.”

Nickel said 26 countries had sent representatives to show their support, including the U.S., Britain, Australia and many European nations. It wasn’t clear how long the trial would last or when a verdict would be announced.

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At a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China’s handling of the two trials was “beyond reproach,” and criticized Canada as hypocritical because it also reserves the right to try cases involving state secrets behind closed doors.

The Chinese government has provided almost no information about the accusations against the two, but a newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party alleges that they collaborated in stealing state secrets and sending them abroad. No verdict has been announced in Spavor’s case, and it is not clear if additional hearings will be held.

However, the outcomes of such cases are almost always predetermined in China, and Beijing is widely seen as using Kovrig and Spavor as leverage to obtain the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested by Canadian authorities at the request of the U.S. in Vancouver in December 2019. The two Canadians were detained in China just days later.

Meng is sought by the U.S. on fraud charges related to the telecom giant’s dealings with Iran, which is under American financial sanctions.


The arrest of a Chinese tech executive in Canada this month has quickly become a focal point in a wider battle between the U.S. and China over trade, national security and trust in the age of globalization.

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The two Canadians have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail. The two men were charged in June 2020 under China’s broadly defined national security laws.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blasted Beijing for holding the trial “in secret” without access for consular officials.

“Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” Trudeau said in Ottawa. “China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians. It’s about respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that are at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy that they’ve engaged in.”

Meng’s case has deeply angered China’s government, which has promoted Huawei as a global leader in mobile communications technology and sees her detention as an attempt to limit the nation’s growing economic and political clout. Beijing has demanded Meng’s immediate and unconditional release and has also restricted various Canadian exports, including canola oil seed, and handed death sentences to four other Canadians convicted of drug smuggling.

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The U.S. and Canada have pledged to work together with China to seek the release of Kovrig and Spavor, but meetings between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats last week in Anchorage — the first since President Biden took office — seemed to offer little hope.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Chinese human rights abuses “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” while senior Chinese foreign policy advisor Yang Jiechi said that China “will not accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side” and that relations had fallen “into a period of unprecedented difficulty.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping is driving the assertive approach to foreign relations, alongside bold domestic policies to eliminate poverty and restore rapid economic growth following the COVID-19 pandemic, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“Xi is extremely ambitious, and he compares himself ... to Mao Zedong and the first emperor of China,” Tsang said.