In a rapid-fire climax to a 1,030-day standoff, China prepared to welcome home a company executive whose arrest in Canada and possible extradition to the United States made her a focus of superpower friction. In getting her back, Beijing brandished a formidable political tool: using detained foreign citizens as bargaining chips in disputes with other countries.
The executive, Meng Wanzhou, was set to land in China on Saturday night local time to a public that widely sees her as a victim of arrogant American overreach. By the same turn, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians detained by Chinese officials just days after Ms. Meng had been arrested, were set to land in Canada.
The exchange resolves one of the festering disputes that have brought tensions between Washington and Beijing to their worst point in decades. But it will likely do little to resolve deeper issues including human rights, a sweeping clampdown in Hong Kong, cyberespionage, China’s threats to use force against Taiwan, and fears in Beijing that the United States will never accept China’s rise.
The swiftness of the apparent deal also stands as a warning to leaders in other countries that the Chinese government can be boldly transactional with foreign nationals, said Donald C. Clarke, a law professor specializing in China at George Washington University’s Law School.
“They’re not even making a pretense of a pretense that this was anything but a straight hostage situation,” he said of the two Canadians, who stood trial on spying charges. Mr. Spavor was sentenced last month to 11 years in prison, and Mr. Kovrig was waiting for a verdict in his case after trial in March.
“In a sense, China has strengthened its bargaining position in future negotiations like this,” Professor Clarke said. “They’re saying, if you give them what they want, they will deliver as agreed.”
Chinese media reports chronicled her release and flight home, skipping over her admission of some wrongdoing or saying that it did not amount to a formal guilty plea. On China’s internet, Ms. Meng was praised as a patriotic symbol of China standing up to Western bullying. Chinese news media scarcely mentioned the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, leaving the impression that Beijing gave nothing away for her return.
“I’ll soon be in the embrace of the great motherland,” Ms. Meng said in a statement issued from her flight. “Without a powerful motherland, I would not have my freedom today.”
To say that the apparent swap signals a thaw in relations would be premature at best, said experts.
President Biden has designated China as a key challenge to American pre-eminence. The releases came as he hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, united by their apprehension about China’s power and intentions in Asia. This month, Mr. Biden unveiled a new security agreement with Australia and Britain, and plans to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
While Canadian officials and American prosecutors have insisted that they treated Ms. Meng’s case as purely a legal matter, politics has lurked in the background since she was arrested at an airport in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018.
Nine days later, security officers took Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, from a street in Beijing. Mr. Spavor was seized on the same day in Dandong, a Chinese city opposite North Korea, a country where he long did business. While Ms. Meng was allowed to live in her Vancouver mansion, the two Canadians were confined to prison under much harsher conditions.
Chinese officials rejected the idea that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were in effect hostages. But Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, scoffed at their denials, and Chinese officials and media commentators occasionally implied that there could be a trade off in return for Ms. Meng’s release.
The United States alleged that in 2013 Ms. Meng lied to a bank over whether Huawei — the telecommunications company founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei, and where she was chief financial officer — had kept control of a company that did business in Iran in violation of American sanctions. Ms. Meng’s lawyers argued that she had been truthful.
Despite posturing on both sides, the United States and Ms. Meng had some incentive to find common ground in part because neither felt entirely sure they would win the fight over extraditing her, according to two additional people with knowledge of the talks.
Her attorneys argued that the case against her entailed an abuse of process, notably former President Donald Trump’s comment that he could intervene to secure a trade deal with Beijing.
“Trump made matters worse on several occasions by implying that Huawei could be simply another U.S. bargaining chip in the trade negotiations,” John Bolton, who had served as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, wrote in his memoir.
While the Canadian courts heard arguments, there were hints that Washington and Beijing were trying to find common ground.Negotiations between Ms. Meng’s team and the Justice Department began more than a year ago, said one person familiar with the Justice Department’s negotiations with her.
At the State Department, the two Canadians appeared to be a priority among human rights cases. When Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, attended talks in China in July, she “raised the cases of American and Canadian citizens,” the department said at the time.
Last week, President Biden held a telephone conversation with China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Neither side gave details, but Mr. Xi’s public comments suggested that he wanted to decrease tensions. The two sides, Mr. Xi said according to China’s official summary, should “bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track of stable development as soon as possible.”
Public resolution, though, may have been slowed by Canada’s recent election. The prime minister, Mr. Trudeau, reclaimed office in the election last week, though he failed to win a commanding majority in Parliament.
The Chinese government’s hardball tactics may have been successful in springing Ms. Meng, but they appear to have created lasting odium in Canada, showing the political costs of seizing foreign nationals. More than 70 percent of Canadian respondents to a Pew Research Center poll this year had an unfavorable view of China. Resistance to purchasing Huawei equipment there has grown.
But under Mr. Xi, Chinese officials have become bolder in rejecting Western criticism. They have said that Ms. Meng’s arrest was rankly political and appeared willing to go to great lengths to ensure that she did not face trial in the United States.
“This was the political persecution of a Chinese citizen with the goal of crushing a Chinese high-tech enterprise,” a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, said in a statement about Ms. Meng on Saturday. “The actions by the United States and Canada were classic arbitrary detention.”
John Kamm, an American businessman who for decades has negotiated with Chinese officials, said that Beijing may also release American nationals held in China as part of the diplomatic give and take. Some are in detention, others under exit bans that block them from leaving China.
“I think now we can hope that there’ll be other shoes dropping — movement on other cases,” Mr. Kamm said by telephone.
Ms. Meng appears sure to be feted as a hero on her return to Shenzhen, but before she can move around she may have to first undergo weeks of quarantine under China’s stringent rules for Covid-19. While in Canada, she stayed in her seven-room gated house in Vancouver and could move around with a tracker device on her left angle.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor will face a glare of attention, and then the hardships of adjusting after years in detention with little human contact.
“Having your movement restricted is still a deprivation of freedom, but the difference between what Meng has experienced and what they went through is night and day,” said Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who studies criminal justice in China. “The worst of their ordeal is over, but their wounds will continue.”
Ian Austen contributed reporting from Ottawa and Dan Bilefsky contributed from Montreal. Clare Fu contributed research.