Call it “hostage diplomacy” or the decidedly colloquial “China’s tit for Canada’s tat”, the death sentence awarded on Monday to Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg on drug charges after Ottawa’s detention of a Chinese executive, Meng Wanzhou, is a direly worrisome trans-Atlantic joust. Palpable is the mounting pressure that China now exerts.
The Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in the north-eastern province of Liaoning has increased the quantum of punishment to the maximum extent possible. The court has increased Schellenberg’s initial sentence of 15 years in prison to death penalty, observing that the Canadian had played “a key role” in a failed attempt to smuggle 222 kg of methamphetamine from China to Australia in 2014.
The verdict has raised questions about whether Beijing is using the case to exert pressure on Ottawa after Canadian authorities detained senior Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, in December. The case could proceed quite expeditiously if Beijing desires. It can stop or slow the process or speed it up. Schellenberg has 10 days to appeal against the death penalty. If he doesn’t, or if the appeal is rejected, then the court’s verdict would go to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing. If it approves it, the execution could happen within seven days, but the court could also reduce the sentence.
Relations between Canada and China have thus reached a grim pass. The death sentence appears to have brought matters to a head; two other Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, are also under arrest in China on unspecified allegations related to national security. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has accused Beijing of arbitrarily applying the death penalty in Schellenberg’s case. The country’s foreign ministry has even issued a travel warning to Canadian citizens.
Trudeau’s remarks have been robustly criticised by China with the assertion that drug trafficking is a “felony” in the country. “Western centrism has been very obvious in recent disputes between China and Canada. Whatever Canada does, it is the rule of law, but whatever China does is not. This unreasonable speculation is a rude contempt towards Chinese law.” It is, therefore, a cocktail of international law and diplomacy; both Canada and China are acutely aware that bilateral equations are inching towards the brink. More than the application of the death penalty, it is the timing and pace of Schellenberg’s case that raises questions.
Amnesty International is bamboozled that the authorities had sat on the Schellenberg case for three years, and then “suddenly found new evidence” to sentence him to death. In short, the message is that China can do whatever it wants without being inconvenienced by principles of natural justice, a fact that Western countries and companies should have fathomed before cosying up to the country. From the religion of minorities to international law, the violation of human rights remains a persistent feature of Xi Jinping’s China, as it was under his predecessors.