From the moment a government-chartered plane lifted Meng out of Canada — where the CFO spent nearly three years living under house arrest in her multimillion-dollar mansion — her journey home has become an all-out nationalist propaganda blitz.
A red carpet and crowds waving Chinese flags awaited her on the tarmac in the southern city of Shenzhen, where the tech giant Huawei is headquartered. Patriotic slogans and songs resounded in the arrival hall of the airport. Downtown skyscrapers lit up with messages welcoming her home.
“The situation has been portrayed [within China] as the Chinese government standing up to the US to get a citizen back; they stood up to the bully and the bully backed down,” said Jeremy Duan, a legal expert at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
“It’s a very biased presentation of the whole story, but it’s not surprising,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “[It’s] hiding part of the truth — the part that does not serve China’s interests and its government’s image.”
Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur with business ties to North Korea, were detained on espionage charges days after Meng was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018. The move was widely interpreted as direct retaliation for Meng. Beijing has repeatedly denied it was holding the two Canadians as political hostages.
Donald C. Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law at George Washington University, said while he thinks it was clear from the outset that the detention of the pair was connected to Meng’s case, the scholarly and journalistic communities were surprised by how closely their releases were timed.
“We all thought China would put more of a fig leaf on the exchange, by waiting a certain amount of time,” he said. “One way of interpreting this is China anticipates engaging in hostage taking in the future, and is strengthening its bargaining position by showing what a reliable deal maker it is — that if you just give us what we want, we’ll free the hostages right away, with no fuss.
“If you don’t trust the kidnapper to actually return the hostages, you might not give them such a big ransom.”
Initially, Chinese state media was mostly silent on the release of the two Canadians, while discussions about their fate were scrubbed from social media. Then, on Sunday night, several state-run outlets reported the Canadians had “confessed their guilt for crimes” and were bailed out on medical grounds — though they did not mention Meng’s case.
But those reports barely made a splash in China, and came well after the nationalist craze celebrating Meng’s homecoming.
“The intense nationalism that was displayed in China upon Meng’s return is an indication that Beijing’s strategy was successful in their own eyes,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“We can therefore expect to see hostage-taking of foreign businesspeople as a recurring feature of China’s diplomacy.”
While Beijing revels in its triumph of nationalist glory, experts say that celebration glosses over potential further damage to China’s international reputation and its relations with Canada, a country with which it has traditionally had strong business ties.
“I think they have really poisoned relations with Canada for quite some time,” Clarke said. “They’ve taken a big PR hit.”
The release of Meng and the two Michaels also won’t likely help Huawei or Beijing avert hefty sanctions that Washington has handed the country. Analysts at Jefferies said Sunday they did not think Meng’s release would cause the United States to lift sanctions on Huawei that allow the company to access chipsets that help it make 5G equipment, for example.
In many Western countries, concerns are also growing over China’s “hostage diplomacy,” experts say.
By trumpeting that China is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve its international ambitions, people from countries whose governments have upset Beijing could feel increasingly worried about traveling there.
“Even though the probability for any person [being detained] is extremely low, if it happens, the burden of that is extremely high … If you’re a rational calculator, you are gonna be concerned about this,” Clarke said.
But Beijing values domestic support more than international image, said Cabestan from Hong Kong Baptist University.
“[Internationally,] they care more about hard power than soft power,” he said. “For [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, it’s better to be feared than to be loved.”