The death sentence imposed on Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg by the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in north-eastern China is an immense blow for the convicted drug smuggler and his family. China argues it is a simple matter of sentencing a felon according to the Chinese code.
But for the rest of the world, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the decision is far more sinister. Following the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in late 2018, Chinese state media warned Canada that Beijing may “take revenge” if she is extradited to the US.
Schellenberg’s death sentence, along with the detainment of two Canadians on suspicion of “activities that endangered China’s national security,” appears to confirm this theory.
Schellenberg’s plight will backfire on Beijing, however. On the defensive over many issues, China needs to win more hearts and minds. Instead, the ruling will only push away friendly countries and stiffen the unity and resolve of those voicing deep concerns with Chinese actions.
China is a growing but lonely rising power and is widely distrusted. It has few enduring allies and supporters. It could be bad faith or bad timing. But sentencing a Canadian to death has only raised collective suspicion and deepened its isolation.
Consider the serious road bumps many countries have had with Beijing in recent years. It is enduring a serious and deepening trade war with the United States on a wide range of complaints over China’s trade practices..
Washington claims Beijing seeks to dominate the most important and high-technology sectors of the future through unfair advantages given to its state-owned companies and other national champions.
It also alleges that Chinese state actors conduct and enable the theft of trillions of dollars in intellectual property from American and other advanced economy firms.
The European Union and Japan have expressed similar concerns, especially with respect to intellectual property theft.
Numerous countries have expressed concerns with President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). An increasing number of experts and diplomats accuse the BRI of imposing debt traps on vulnerable economies.
They point to countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia and Djibouti as examples of these countries forced to concede aspects of their sovereign decision making to China once they become incapable of paying back the exorbitant loans.
Then there are other once friendly countries which have felt China’s economic wrath after making sovereign political or strategic decisions which displease Beijing.
“Unofficial” economic sanctions against South Korea were applied by Beijing after Seoul made the decision to install the American THAAD anti-missile defense system in the face of North Korea provocations, resulting in a sharp drop in Chinese tourists and difficulties for South Korean firms operating inside China.
In late 2017, relations between Australia and China grew frosty, after Canberra announced multiple new laws aimed at tightening the country’s security and electoral processes, including a ban on foreign donations, a move widely seen as attempting to curtail the influence of China. The following year, reports surfaced that Australian ministers had been refused Chinese visas.
The underlying takeaway in all these examples are that the reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is far and deep and its political objectives prevail above all other considerations.
Economic and other activities conducted by Chinese entities and individuals can never be taken at face value because they can be compelled to serve the demands of the Party. Despite almost four decades of reform, the hand of the Party on all tools of national power is as strong as ever.
Given this, the burden of proof falls upon China to dispel the argument that Schellenberg’s fate is tied to that of whether Meng is extradited to America to face trial — with the guilt or severity of the crime only a secondary consideration.
If China cannot discharge that burden, the perceived link between Schellenberg’s sentence to Meng’s fate will only strengthen the case made by Western intelligence agencies that Huawei is not an ordinary private company, that Huawei receives special support from and protection by the CCP. Patronage is never free in authoritarian politics and the case will only grow that Huawei advances Party and state objectives in return.
Indeed, the death sentence only increases the likelihood that Huawei will be increasingly locked out of the Five Eyes economies — the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — including the roll-out of their 5G networks. That would be pivotal. Japan would certainly follow, and perhaps the EU.
The arrest of a Huawei employee in Poland over charges he was spying for the Chinese government won’t help dispel these beliefs either.
The targeting of Canada is particularly counter-productive for China. Previously, the Trudeau government was accused by conservative opponents of being too light and soft a touch on China.
This even included accusations that Ottawa had become naïve when it came to national security matters and the sale of technology to China. Ongoing tensions between Donald Trump and Trudeau over issues such as trade would have delighted Beijing.
The American and Canadian leaders are still unlikely to become close friends. But China can no longer plan for Ottawa being the weak link amongst the Five Eyes when it comes to criticizing Chinese policies. It is now politically difficult for Trudeau to argue the case for a softer approach.