For more than 1,000 days, China insisted that its detention of two Canadians had nothing to do with the case of a Chinese telecommunications executive arrested in Canada on fraud charges who challenged her proposed extradition to the United States.
But hours after U.S. prosecutors announced a deal Friday that allowed the executive, Meng Wanzhou, to return to China, the two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — were also on a plane home.
And China has since released two other people: Victor and Cynthia Liu, an American brother and sister who had been barred from leaving the country for more than three years in what was viewed as an effort to force the return of their father, a former executive at a Chinese bank who is accused of fraud.
The moves brought a sudden end to a three-way diplomatic dispute, and some have suggested it offers a chance to reset the troubled U.S.-China relationship. But many have instead interpreted Beijing's actions as a warning to the rest of the world: arrest our citizens and you will face swift retaliation.
"Going back to business as usual is going to be very tricky after this," said David Webster, a history professor at Bishop's University in Quebec who focuses on Canada's relationships in Asia.
The dispute began in December 2018, when Meng, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was arrested at the Vancouver airport at the request of U.S. authorities. They accused her and Huawei of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Days later, Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China on suspicion of spying, in what was widely seen in the West as retaliation.
Many in China also viewed Meng as a hostage. But while Meng, 49, the daughter of Huawei's billionaire founder, lived in two Vancouver mansions while her case was heard by Canadian courts and was allowed to venture out with an ankle monitor, Kovrig and Spavor were held in isolation with limited access to lawyers or embassy officials.
The Canadians were tried separately in secret this year, and last month Spavor was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. At the time of their return to Canada, Kovrig was still awaiting a verdict.
Under Meng’s deferred prosecution deal with the U.S. Justice Department, she admitted some wrongdoing without pleading guilty, ending the extradition proceedings in Canada. Many observers expected China to wait awhile before releasing the two Canadians. When China freed them hours later, citing health reasons, many saw it as proof that this was akin to a hostage swap.
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"China has always insisted this is not hostage diplomacy, but of course it is — just look at the timing," said Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Meng's return also coincided with the release in recent days of the Lius: Victor, a student at Georgetown University, and Cynthia, a consultant at McKinsey & Company. After traveling to China in 2018 to visit their sick grandfather, the siblings were barred from leaving the country while their mother, Sandra Han, also a U.S. citizen, was detained by police.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that the Liu siblings had returned to the United States and said consular staff in Shanghai had helped to facilitate their departure, adding that the department would continue to advocate on behalf of U.S. citizens arbitrarily detained in China.
"We oppose the use of coercive exit bans against people who are not themselves charged with crimes," the spokesperson said.
Andreas Fulda, an associate professor of politics and a China scholar at England's University of Nottingham, said that while the Liu case appeared to be related to the others, any agreement between the U.S. and China was unlikely to be made public.
"It should worry us that an aspiring superpower considers this to be fair game. I think it's completely unacceptable," he said. "These siblings, they should not have their civil liberties restricted in random ways"
Theirs is just one of many cases involving U.S. and other foreign nationals. A State Department travel advisory warns Americans, especially dual U.S.-Chinese citizens and U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage, about the possibility of arbitrary detention and exit bans.
The White House denies that it was pressured by Chinese detentions, with press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters on Monday that there was "no link" between the near simultaneous releases of Meng, Kovrig and Spavor. But she added that the U.S. had "made no secret" of the fact that it wanted the two Canadians returned, including in a call this month between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
Now that their respective citizens have been freed, all three countries have attempted to claim victory.
The U.S. says it gained an admission of responsibility from a high-level figure at one of China's most treasured tech giants. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally greeted "the two Michaels" when they landed in Calgary on Saturday morning.
But that hero's welcome was nothing compared with the pageantry rolled out by China for Meng, who returned a week before the country’s National Day.
State media tracked her Air China Boeing 777 as it flew home from Vancouver over the North Pole. When she landed in the city of Shenzhen, where Huawei is based, she was greeted by thousands of jubilant supporters. "Finally, I'm home," she said in a brief speech broadcast live to an audience of millions.
In her speech and in an earlier message from the plane, Meng thanked Chinese officials for supporting her.
"Without a powerful motherland, I would not have my freedom today," she said.
Some experts say it's clear who emerged from the episode the strongest.
"If there is a clear 'winner' out of this 1,000-day-plus hostage diplomacy saga, it is Beijing," said Diana Fu, an associate politics professor at the University of Toronto. If China had not detained the two Canadians, she said, "it is unclear that they would have mounted enough pressure for the U.S. to drop charges against Meng."
Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, described Meng’s return as "a sign of easing bilateral economic and trade tensions." Some in the West are also hopeful that progress can now be made in other areas of disagreement with Beijing, including on trade, human rights and Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea.
"Now we can see if we can move onto tariff reductions and a whole host of other things," said Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
But other experts are wary.
"This is just one footnote in the wider great-power competition," said Jinghan Zeng, professor of China and international studies at England's Lancaster University. "I don't think anyone wins this. I think all three countries are losers."
And Meng's return to China hasn’t come without a cost.
"This has really tarnished China's international image — whatever kind of soft power it enjoyed, has literally evaporated," according to Fulda.
From a Western perspective, he said, "even if you wanted to give China the benefit of doubt, China has now joined the ranks of Iran and other hostage takers."
"This is not the kind of behavior that you would expect from an aspiring global superpower, and it is clearly not guided by the rule of law," he said.