When Meng Wanzhou’s flight landed in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, she was only expecting a brief stopover. But nearly two years later, Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of the telecom giant’s founder appears ready for an extended stay, straining Canada-China relations.
The next round of hearings in a protracted legal battle over his extradition to the United States will begin on Monday.
Those involved say the whole process could drag on for up to a decade, leaving Canada caught in growing tension between Washington and Beijing, focused on one of China’s most important companies.
At the center of the story is a sixteen-page corporate PowerPoint presentation.
Stopover in Vancouver and arrest
When her plane from Hong Kong landed, Meng Wanzhou planned to go to a house she owned in the Canadian city to pick up luggage before catching another flight to Mexico for a company meeting.
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But instead, she was questioned by Canadian border security officers for three hours as her phone was seized and her luggage searched.
Once this was completed, she was officially admitted to Canada. That’s when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved in and arrested her due to an extradition request filed by the United States.
The United States wants Ms Meng to stand trial on fraud charges related to the alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran, claims she denies.
PowerPoint at the heart of the matter
The PowerPoint was used by Ms. Meng in a meeting with HSBC Bank on August 22, 2013 and is considered essential evidence against her.
Reuters reporting in previous months had raised the question of whether there had been a violation of trade sanctions against Iran by the Hong Kong-based company Skycom.
The question was whether Skycom, a telecommunications equipment seller, was simply a business partner of Huawei – or a front to cover up its activities in Iran.
The United States alleges that during the meeting – the one with the PowerPoint presentation – Ms Meng misled HSBC as to the true nature of Huawei’s relationship with Skycom, which in turn put the bank in jeopardy of violate sanctions against Iran.
His lawyers say the United States misled the court, particularly over PowerPoint, by omitting key information from two slides that showed HSBC was not, in fact, being kept in the dark about the real one. nature of the Skycom / Huawei relationship.
Meng’s lawyers launch legal fight
Extradition hearings are ongoing, and Ms. Meng’s attorneys have launched a multi-pronged attack on the US extradition request itself.
A first attempt to claim that the crime she is accused of in the United States is not a crime in Canada has failed (although this is subject to appeal).
Another challenge concerns the politics around the case.
His lawyers say US President Donald Trump’s comments, which indicated a willingness to use the case as bargaining chips in trade talks with China, constitute an abuse of process.
Another challenge relates to its processing at the Vancouver airport. Her lawyers argue that there was an abuse of process in the way she was treated.
They are fighting for certain documents to be disclosed, including those from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a national intelligence service, and seek to find out what role US authorities could have played in his arrest at the time.
A judge has already rejected requests for certain documents, which in turn could be appealed.
The result of all of this is a legal process that will keep lawyers busy, but unlikely to evolve quickly.
The preference of Ms. Meng’s lawyers would clearly be that they win and bring her back to China as soon as possible. But if that doesn’t seem likely and they suffer a string of defeats, they might object to sending it to the United States, which would mean removing the legal process.
With so many different sides to a case that is already highly unusual and the possibility of appeal, the best guess of some close to the case is that it could take at least five and up to 10 years.
As the legal process unfolds, the impact of the case has had very significant repercussions.
The arrest of such a prestigious business figure has sparked anger in China, and the country’s ambassador this month said Canada has been ‘exploited’ and ‘complicit’ by the United States while Washington had committed a “barbaric act of intimidation”. .
HSBC has been put in a difficult position, with Chinese media questioning the extent to which the bank has cooperated with the United States to build a deal they describe as a political trap.
The bank, already caught between the West and China over its stance on Hong Kong, argued it had only done what it was legally required to do and that there had been no trapping.
The case also raises broader questions about which countries could arrest business executives if they received demands from the United States. This may worry Huawei executives and limit their travel, and also affect governments that could get stuck between the United States and China.
And it has raised fears that Western businessmen and other travelers will end up being held by China to be used as bargaining chips.
Two Canadians were detained a few days after Ms. Meng’s arrest. Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were subsequently charged with espionage.
China has denied any connection, but the couple’s detention has been widely interpreted as a direct response to Ms. Meng’s arrest.
This month, a group of former Canadian diplomats called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to negotiate an exchange of Ms Meng for the two men.
Mr. Trudeau has previously criticized the use of “arbitrary detention as a tool to achieve political goals” and said that stopping his extradition could put more Canadians at risk.
Canada fears being seen as being pressured to bypass a legal process and is also aware that this could risk the wrath of the Trump administration, which is on a tougher line on China.
Washington seems unlikely at this time to drop its case in its battles against a multi-pronged offensive against Huawei in particular and China more generally.
The political dynamic may change over time, including after the US presidential election in November.
But for now, Ms Meng’s time in Canada shows no signs of ending any sooner – or becoming less controversial.