The Cruel Fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | Society | East Asia

The Cruel Fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China

A firsthand account of what life in Chinese detention is like for a foreigner on politically motivated charges.

The Cruel Fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China

In this file image made from a March 2, 2017, video, Michael Spavor, director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, talks during a Skype interview in Yanji, China.

Credit: AP Photo, File

As of December 10, two Canadians will have been held for an entire year in abominable, isolated conditions in the claws of the Chinese Communist Party’s secret police.

Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat working as a conflict mitigation consultant, and Michael Spavor, a consultant who arranged business travel to North Korea, were seized exactly a year ago and later charged with espionage. Both detentions were seen as an act of diplomatic hostage-taking in revenge for the arrest in Canada on fraud charges of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecoms technology company with close ties to the CCP regime.

It does not take over a year to put somebody on trial for the accusations leveled against the two Michaels — if you have evidence. But as in most Chinese criminal cases, evidence has yet to be produced. The truth is they are not criminal suspects but hostages, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear in remarks earlier this year confirming these cases were a tit-for-tat for Meng’s arrest.

Meng is right now enjoying the freedom of Vancouver’s lovely streets and the luxury of her own $15 million mansion there through privilege of bail in a free and open democratic society under the rule of law. The two Michaels, by painful contrast, suffer conditions equal to torture in the lawless Chinese gulag.

Approaching the anniversary of their detainment, leaders of the International Crisis Group, which employs Kovrig as an expert, appealed for his release in an open letter in the Washington Post on December 3. The plea fell upon deaf ears. The two Michaels remain isolated in China’s detention system to this day.

“It is one year since [Kovrig and Spavor] were detained. Since then, they have not had access to a lawyer and have been denied contact with their families and loved ones,” a senior Canadian official told The Diplomat. “These two Canadians are and will remain our absolute priority. We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians.”

I am in a unique position of being able to report what Chinese detention conditions are like. I and my wife spent two years, from 2013 to 2015, in Chinese detention and prison institutions on trumped-up charges of illegally acquiring information for our due diligence business. I thus acquired first-hand insights into China’s practices.

In this image made from a video taken on March 28, 2018, Michael Kovrig, an adviser with the International Crisis Group, speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. (AP Photo)

Pre-Trial Detention Conditions

Pre-trial detention in China is used as a weapon of duress which, in its aggregate, adds up to torture. The accused are held in harsh conditions in a “detention center” designed to break resistance and crush the human spirit in order to extort a confession. As a result, such self-incriminating confessions, when they happen, are false. The following description of those detention conditions comes from my own experiences during 23 months in captivity, in addition to listening to and reading about other prisoners’ experiences, including conversations with prisoners released in 2019.

To ensure full shock and horror, detainees are almost always thrown into a crowded cell in the middle of the night, after at least one full day or more of interrogation in a police cell without any legal counsel. Alternatively they may be placed into solitary confinement.

Usually, prisoners are held in small and crowded unfurnished cells with no beds or chairs. Detainees are forced to spend the whole day sitting or squatting on the floor, which causes joint and muscle deterioration. At night, they sleep on a hard, rough wooden floor without enough bedcovers to keep warm. The toilet is a hole in the floor in the corner of the cell. No hot water is provided, and prisoners must wash in cold water from a crude tap. The cells are hot in summer, and freezing in winter. Beyond the cell bars, the corridor windows are left open. In winter it is often colder in the cell than it is outdoors. In hot weather there is no heating or air conditioning.

The plaster on the cell walls and ceiling is moldy and rotting due to damp; pieces of it frequently break off. The surface paint is old-style toxic lead paint that is peeling and flaking off. The concrete in the walls was infused with benzine when it was mixed, to avoid it freezing during winter construction.

Food is served cold in doggy bowls through the cell bars. The food is dirty and lacks basic nutrients such as calcium and the main vitamins. There are no fresh vegetables or fruit in the diet. Access to necessary and genuine medical treatment is withheld; the authorities only pay lip-service to medical needs. There is almost no outdoor exercise and therefore no sunshine or fresh air. This causes vitamin D deficiency and other ailments. Skin diseases are rife. Even when a detainee is very ill, bail is always denied. Most prisoners I met had quickly developed illnesses, which were left untreated. In my own case, it was cancer.

No privacy is ever allowed, for the use of the toilet, for washing, or for contemplation. If a prisoner is held in solitary, he is permanently watched over by menacing guards and cameras every single minute. Strong lights are kept on 24/7, causing sleep deprivation and eyesight deterioration.

Detainees are not allowed to keep a pen. They must beg to borrow one from their guards and cannot get one for more than a few minutes each week. No phone calls are allowed. Communication with family or friends in writing or by phone is blocked. No family visits are allowed either. Written communication with lawyers is limited to a single-sentence letter using a pen borrowed from a guard, asking the lawyer to visit, or asking him to ask relatives to send the prisoner money to buy daily necessities or to send clothing. Families can in theory send clothes to the pre-trial detainee but no supplementary food or hygiene products are allowed in.

Detainees are interrogated daily, locked inside a special interrogation cage and questioned by groups of Public Security Bureau officers or state security officers. This continues for weeks on end, without legal counsel. Lawyer visits are rare and when finally allowed they are conducted under surveillance, without any privacy. During these visits, detainees and lawyers are separated by bars inside an interrogation cell. The detainee is not allowed to take notes to and from the meeting or to bring documents back to the cell. Detainees cannot keep any case documents in the cell.

This all makes it impossible to work on your case or to orchestrate a proper defense. I cannot imagine things being much better for the two Michaels, although I have heard that they now are able to receive occasional consular visits and messages from home.

Detainees are not allowed access to media materials such as newspapers or TV news broadcasts, except a Chinese newspaper that is circulated by the officers for half an hour a day and shared in each cell by 12 prisoners for that half hour. This prevents them from reading any media coverage of their own case. A television may be hanging from the cell ceiling but it is a closed circuit broadcast that only pumps out propaganda and low-quality entertainment shows, in scheduled blasts.

Detainees are forced to undergo propaganda lessons for significant hours of the day. Some detention centers make the detainees engage in forced manufacturing labor, for example, making Christmas tree lights for export. The detention centers operate a punishment regime. Prisoners are graded for their behavior and punishments for “bad behavior” can include denial of privileges (including a ban on using the prison shopping system to buy daily necessities), forced sitting sessions, or solitary confinement.

Detainees are often held in these conditions for long periods before going to trial and prison. I met many who were held in such detention centers for as long as two years. I met one who had been there for five years because he had appealed against a conviction, and the authorities avoided considering his appeal. I heard officers using the unusual term “unconvicted criminals” to refer to pre-trial detainees. I asked an officer how an unconvicted person could be called a criminal. The officer did not understand.

The main difference between the two Michaels and a detainee held in a cell full of other prisoners is that the Canadians are suffering these deprivations and mistreatments alone, which is much harder than suffering them with cell-room buddies.

These and many other conditions of pre-trial detention add up to intense duress and inhumane treatment that violates applicable international treaties such as the UN conventions on torture and on the minimum standards of treatment for prisoners, as well as China’s own laws and the Chinese constitution, all flouted.

China’s So-Called Rule by Law

It is not possible for any detainee or suspect to receive a fair trial or true justice in China because China is not under the rule of law. China only wields a dictatorial and arbitrary justice (which is in fact not justice at all) to serve the interests of the CCP and its officials.

The ruling CCP installed a system where all components of justice belong firmly to the Party, and the Party stands above the law.

Thus the outcome of every criminal trial is decided in advance and is not based on any genuine due process. Suspects or detainees are presumed guilty at the outset and are treated as such from the moment of arrest, even though China’s own law officially presumes innocence before guilt is proven. The release of any detainee without conviction implies failure and is a political decision, not a judicial or legal decision.

The laws, the police, the detention centers, the prosecution, the judiciary, and the penal institutions, are all under direct CCP control. They are in fact all from one and the same family – the Party.

Even the lawyers’ profession in China is controlled by the Party. All Chinese lawyers must sign an oath to obey the Communist Party in order to obtain a license to practice.

There is thus no separation of powers between these components of the system.  This means there is no independent court with an impartial judge. All the employees and officers of this system take orders from the CCP’s Political and Legal Committee.

The Chinese police do not conduct genuine police investigation work. They do not perform genuinely forensic investigation because the system does not require rock-solid evidence to convict a prisoner of a crime. Such a standard is not required because the process is only window-dressing.

Instead, the Chinese police rely heavily on circumstantial evidence and hearsay and statements. Most cases are convicted on the basis of coerced confessions and witness statements rather than any material or forensic evidence. All confession statements have been extracted under duress in conditions tantamount to terror and torture. Witness statements have been extracted under similar duress exerted upon a witness, or volunteered by a witness who is an enemy of the accused person.

Very often, just like me, detainees are paraded on state TV making forced and falsified confessions before they have been formally charged, indicted, and convicted, thus preventing any fair and transparent judicial process, on top of all the abusive handling.

The key drivers of all foreign detention cases in China are either revenge or political/ diplomatic leverage. China has made clear that the two Michaels are tit-for-tat hostages.

False Imprisonment is an Institutionalized Habit

The detainment and imprisonment of foreigners in China has, like many things in the country, a history of many centuries. Diplomatic hostage taking was also practiced by the emperors. It is intended to gain leverage against foreign nations.

Canada is not the only country to fall victim to this institutionalized behavior of the CCP, nor are the two Michaels the only two Canadian victims. Other Canadian victims include the couple Kevin and Julia Garratt, who were falsely accused of espionage in China retaliation for the arrest of the Chinese spy Su Bin on America’s behalf in Canada. The Garratts were held for two years, overlapping with my own captivity.

Before that, Kun Huang, a Chinese-born Canadian and a short-seller, was held by police for two years in central China at the behest of a Chinese fraudster with family background in the CCP’s military arm, the PLA. Two Canadian citizens are also on China’s death row right now on rather feeble drug charges as part of the pressure being applied against Ottawa over the arrest of Meng.

The arrest of foreigners and their parading on Chinese state TV has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012. Since then, Xi has steadily reversed the liberalizing reforms of his predecessors, beefed up totalitarian CCP control over society, and launched a campaign of xenophobic nationalism, overseas intimidation, and interference in the world’s free and open societies. Sometimes foreigners are arrested even just on a flimsy pretext of “planning” something, not necessarily doing it.

Other countries have also tasted this behavior by the CCP. Australia has borne more than its fair share, with the arrests of 18 Crown Casino employees and of Chinese-born Australian dissidents, among others. The U.K. saw me thrown in jail, while Sweden saw its Chinese-born citizen, the publisher Gui Minhai, “disappeared” and paraded on TV.

American citizens have not gone unscathed either. American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis was arrested in China in March 2015 and accused of spying while travelling with a business delegation from Texas. An American schoolteacher and one of my cellmates, David McMahon, was arrested in 2013 on false charges of sexual molestation and has still not been released. The U.S. government seems unable or unwilling to help this hapless victim of China’s sham justice system. But Western governments often put business relations with countries like China above the rights and protection of their own citizens.

This week, in Britain, a new group, the British Rights Abroad Group, comprising the victims of unlawful imprisonment and their supporters, launched a petition to call for a U.K. law to compel the government in London to fight for the release of Britons wrongfully detained or imprisoned overseas. All democratic societies should follow suit and stop kowtowing to the Beijing throne.

The main obstacle to bringing China’s abusive behavior to an end is Xi Jinping. It is not likely to stop before he steps down from power. “Mr. Xi is of the Caligula persuasion – ‘Let them hate me as long as they fear me,’” says former U.K. diplomat Charles Parton of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.

A second obstacle to ending it is the Western nations’ evident lack of sufficient leverage and reverse reciprocity, combined with a sense of vulnerability or a sheer lack of courage. “You can’t negotiate with a tiger when you have your head inside its mouth,” the late Winston Churchill supposedly said of the Nazi regime when World War II was breaking out.

“Canada is at a loss how to handle this,” one Canadian China scholar told me. “We need our own leverage to bring these hostages home.” Ottawa needs to grasp that nettle and stop turning a blind eye to all the CCP infiltrators and spies on its soil, across a swathe of government agencies, and start arresting them. All free and open societies that uphold the rule of law need to fight this battle shoulder to shoulder.

Peter Humphrey has been a China specialist for 44 years. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center and a Research Affiliate of King’s College London. He was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, 17 of them with Reuters. He later spent 15 years as an anti-fraud due-diligence consultant for Western corporations in China, including 10 years with his own company, ChinaWhys. He spent two years imprisoned in Shanghai on charges of “illegally acquiring personal information,” which have been widely recognized as false.