Federal unit flags apparent Chinese information campaign to cast doubt on Kovrig and Spavor’s return

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People hold signs calling on China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in Vancouver on March 6, 2019.Reuters

A federal unit tracking foreign interference identified what appeared to be a coordinated information campaign by Chinese state media to control the national narrative around the return of the “two Michaels” to Canada.

Rapid Response Mechanism Canada found that the effort also appeared intended to sow confusion or doubt in Canada and abroad about what Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were doing in China before their detention in late 2018.

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the unit’s analysis of the events of September 2021, the latest window into a tense geopolitical drama that has unfolded between Ottawa and Beijing for nearly three years.

Several parts of the document, deemed too sensitive to be distributed, have been hidden.

Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese company Huawei Technologies, in December 2018 at the request of the United States, where she was facing charges related to US sanctions against Iran.

The move clearly angered Beijing, and two Canadians working in China — Kovrig and Spavor — were arrested soon after on charges of endangering national security, a move widely seen as retaliation against Ottawa.

Both Kovrig and Spavor were convicted of espionage in 2021 by Chinese courts behind closed doors. Canada and many allies have said the process amounts to arbitrary detention on false charges in an irresponsible justice system.

The United States reached a deferred prosecution agreement in Meng’s case, allowing her release, and Beijing allowed the two Michaels, as they became known, to return home on September 25.

A great wave of relief from the Canadians greeted their return. Typical of the sentiment was a tweet from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service: “CSIS joins all Canadians in welcoming you to Canada.

RRM Canada’s September 28 analysis says it identified a Chinese state media account that claimed the two Michaels had “admitted guilt”, had been “released on medical bail” and that the CSIS had inadvertently exposed them as Canadian spies.

The unit, based at Global Affairs Canada, produces open data analysis to chart foreign interference trends, strategies and tactics. These efforts support the G7 RRM, an initiative to strengthen coordination to identify and respond to threats to major industrial democracies.

RRM Canada says it first detected the “two Michaels” story on September 26, when the Global Times, a state-owned media tabloid, published a lengthy article in English with the headline: “Two Canadians confess their guilt, obtained bail on medical grounds before leaving China: source.

The RRM’s analysis notes that history indicates that the two men were “released on bail”, “confessed to their crimes and wrote letters of confession and repentance in their own handwriting”, and left China”. in accordance with legal procedures”.

“The author adds that China’s suspicions are not unfounded and points to a recent CSIS tweet that welcomed both Michaels to Canada.”

Meng left a British Columbia court on September 24 after a judge granted a release order that withdrew the US extradition request against her.

This followed her virtual appearance in a New York court, where she pleaded not guilty to all charges and a judge signed the Deferred Prosecution Agreement.

At the time, Nicole Boeckmann, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said that by entering into the deferred prosecution agreement, Meng had taken responsibility for her role in carrying out a scheme to defraud. a global financial institution.

Boeckmann said Meng’s confession in a statement of facts confirms that she made multiple material misrepresentations to a senior executive at a financial institution regarding Huawei’s business operations in Iran in an effort to preserve Huawei’s banking relationship. the company with the institution.

On the same day, news reports on Chinese social media platform WeChat reported that Meng would appear in US and Canadian courts and could sign a deferred prosecution agreement that would allow him to return to China, RRM analysis notes. .

“Because all of the DPA’s details were unclear, Canadian WeChat records reported that she would plead guilty to charges or admit wrongdoing in deceiving a global financial institution,” the analysis reads. “Chinese state media did not include any of these discussions or information in their official accounts of Meng’s release.”

In response, according to the RRM analysis, most mentions of what Meng had agreed to in the Deferred Prosecution Agreement were removed.

WeChat users would see an error message from the Tencent platform developer stating “cannot view this content because it violates regulations”.

RRM notes that this type of message only appears when Tencent or the Cyberspace Administration of China removes content from news accounts. However, he was unable to determine which one deleted the stories.

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment on RRM Canada’s report.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto says China has an extensive system of censorship that includes restrictions on the internet, apps and media. Internet platforms operating in China must comply with local content control laws and regulations, the research lab says.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, suggested that China’s actions regarding online dialogue about the events of last September indicate a lack of finesse.

“It shows that they’re not very sophisticated and can be quite clumsy at the same time,” said Hampson, co-author with Canadian Press reporter Mike Blanchfield of “The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage. in the US-China Cyberwar.

“It’s Chinese state censorship in action.”

Michael Kovrig flew into Toronto on Saturday and spoke briefly to waiting reporters. With his wife Vina Nadjibulla by his side, Kovrig said it was fantastic to be back in Canada.

The Globe and Mail

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