The Detention of the Two Michaels: A Story on China’s Human Rights Abuses

By: Peter Xavier Rossetti

Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor, known as the “two Michaels,” returned to Canada after spending over 1000 days detained in China. Their collective story is a harrowing example of China’s human rights violations and willingness to use people as a means for geopolitical gain. Now that they are home and present in the minds of Canadians and others, it is essential to report their treatment while in China accurately. Background information is necessary to understand the severity of the tribulation the two Michaels faced.

In early December of 2018, a woman named Meng Wanzhou was about to make a layover stop in Canada while flying to Mexico (Corera, 2020). Nothing, in particular, made this stopover in Vancouver strange, but Wanzhou was no ordinary tourist. Wanzhou is the chief financial officer of Huawei, and the United States wanted her on charges of bank and wire fraud that helped her company circumnavigate the US sanction on Iran (Karphal, 2020). As soon as she landed in Vancouver, Canadian officials arrested her and prepared her extradition case to the States. Several days later, Michael Spavor and Michael Korvig were detained in China.

Korvig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, were convicted of vague espionage and spying charges, with the latter being sentenced to 11 years in prison by Chinese courts (Aziz, 2021). Many people speculated that the arrests were an act of retaliation by the Chinese government after the arrest of Wanzhou in Canada. Despite Canadian and American attempts to persuade China into dropping the charges, the two men would go on to spend nearly three years of their lives detained. The conditions of their detention were brutal, and they highlight the gross and arbitrary imprisonment tactics employed by the Chinese government.

Korvig and Spavor spent most of their imprisonment completely cut-off from the outside world. Chinese officials allowed the two men to make only a handful of phone calls throughout their captivity while also barring Canadian diplomats from reaching them (Coletta, 2021). To put into perspective how isolated they were, Korvig and Spavor appeared to be missing common knowledge about current international events. For example, after a long-overdue meeting with a consular in October of 2020, Korvig was finally informed that the pandemic had spread across the world, resulting in the death of millions (Hopper, 2021). Deprived of basic information pertaining to current events, Korvig and Spavor spent their days detached and unaware of what was happening in the outside world.

Isolation was not the only thing the two Michaels had to cope with during their detainment, as the actual physical conditions of the prison cells were inhumane. Reports determined that both men were forced to live in tiny cells filled with other prisoners and were denied the ability to leave (Hopper, 2021). Unlike Western prisons, these detainment centres contain no communal spaces such as exercise yards or dining halls. Besides the confined, brutal living conditions, the two Micheals were also subject to psychological torment. The bright lighting of the cell was kept on during all hours of the day, allowing for little rest, and the two were treated to daily integrations by Chinese authorities (Nossal, 2021). The Chinese government’s mental and emotional abuses inflicted on Korvig and Spavor are unspeakable.

The arbitrary conditions that the Korvig and Spavor were subject to are gross inflictions on human rights. It has been a massive relief to have both men return home. However, it is important to acknowledge that these isolation conditions, physical confinement, and psychological abuse are not unique to the two Michaels. China has been detaining people in this brutal fashion long before the Korvig and Spavor were sentenced to prison there. The Chinese government will continue to act in such a manner until they face a firm international stance. No human being should be subject to such treatment.

References:

Aziz, Saba. “ ‘Free at last’: Canadian Michael Korvig, wife speak about emotional return from China.” Global News, 26 Sep. 2021,

https://globalnews.ca/news/8221895/west-block-michael-kovrig/

Coletta, Amanda. “Canada’s ‘two Michaels’ back home after more than 1,000 days imprisoned in China as Huawei’s Meng cuts deal with U.S.” The Washington Post, 25 Sep. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/09/24/canada-two-michaels-china-huawei/

Corera, Gordon. “Meng Wanzhou: Questions over Huawei executive’s arrest as legal battle continues.” BBC, 31 Oct. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54756044

Hopper, Tristin. “No sunlight, a hole for a toilet: What two years in Chinese detention has been like for the two Michaels.” National Post, 19 Mar. 2021, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/no-sunlight-a-hole-for-a-toilet-what-two-years-in-c hinese-detention-has-been-like-for-the-two-michaels

Karphal, Arjun. “The extradition trial of Huawei’s CFO starts this month – here’s what to watch.” CNBC, 9 Jan. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/10/huawei-cfo-meng-wanzhou-extradition-trial-explained. html

Nossal, Kim Richard. “Wrong place, wrong citizenship: The tribulations of the Two Michaels.” The Interpreter, 19 Jan. 2021, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/wrong-place-wrong-citizenship-tribulations-t wo-michaels

Image Attribution: Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor after landing in Calgary and being greeted by Prime
Minister Justin Trudeau (image from The Globe and Mail)

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