The Canada-China Prisoner Swap explained

This past week, Canada and the U.S. saw through a high-profile prisoner swap with China that allowed Huawei CFO and heir apparent Meng Wanzhou to fly back home at the same time two Canadian citizens were independently released from Chinese custody. Here is everything you need to know about what went down in this concurrent exchange. 

So, What Exactly Happened?

On Friday, Sept. 24, Meng Wanzhou reached a deferred prosecution deal with the U.S. Justice Department. After she accepted responsibility for fraud allegations, federal prosecutors agreed to drop all charges against Ms. Meng by 2022 and granted her the immediate freedom to travel back to China from her mansion in Vancouver, where she had been under house arrest since late 2018. Simultaneously, the Chinese government released two Canadiens, former diplomat Micheal Kovrig and entrepreneur Micheal Spravor (referred to as the “two Micheals”), who had also been in custody since late 2018 for allegedly endangering Chinese security.

Why Was Ms. Meng Arrested in the First Place?

Ms. Meng had originally been arrested by Canadian police at the request of U.S. authorities for fraudulently seeking to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran. According to prosecutors, Meng had planned to sell U.S. equipment to Iran through Skycom, a company with close ties to Chinese tech giant Huawei, despite strict American bans prohibiting such sales.

Had Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor Been Arrested in Retaliation?

While China vehemently denies this point, many experts suspect that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were arrested only nine days after Ms. Meng as a reaction to her detainment. Dubbed by some as “hostage diplomacy,” China was thought to have apprehended the two men to put pressure on Canadian and American authorities and ensure the safe return of Ms. Meng to China. Given the timely release of them both in the aftermath of Meng’s plea deal, it is not far-fetched to assume that there is indeed validity to these experts’ claims.

What Was Each Side’s Reaction to the Swap?

Canadian President Justin Trudeau celebrated the continued perseverance of the two Micheals and hugged them when they stepped foot back in Canada. Anthony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, wrote that he was “pleased” to see them return home safely. Ms. Meng thanked the Communist Party for their continued support during her house arrest while Chinese authorities continued to downplay the connection between both sides’ release.

What Does This Mean for Chinese-Canadian Relations?

The three-year feud had been a major thorn in Chinese-Canadian diplomacy, so after this recent prisoner swap, one can hope for a slow return to normalcy between the two trans-Pacific nations. However, how long this relative calmness will last remains to be seen after President Biden’s pivot to East Asia, exemplified in the recent AUKUS deal that further raised tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies. Will China continue to pursue hostage diplomacy as a way to retaliate against this pact? Will Canada seek to mediate between the two giants or follow the U.S. and its hard stance against China? Only time will tell.

Lucas Holloway is a freshman majoring in International Studies and Economics at Johns Hopkins University. He is originally from Daytona Beach, FL, and is a member of the editorial team on the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs.

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