When Meng Wanzhou’s flight landed in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, she was expecting to stop for only a short time. But after nearly two years, Huawei’s CFO and the daughter of the telecom giant’s founder appear ready for an extended stay – putting a lot of pressure on relations between Canada and China.
On Monday, the next round of hearings begins in a drawn-out legal battle over her extradition to the United States.
Stakeholders say the entire process could last for ten years, leaving Canada caught in the escalating tension between Washington and Beijing, and focusing on one of the most prominent companies in China.
In the center of the story is a sixteen-page PowerPoint presentation.
Vancouver stop and arrest
When her plane landed from Hong Kong, Meng Wanzhou planned to go to her home in the Canadian city to pick up some luggage before boarding another flight to Mexico for a company meeting.
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Instead, Canadian Border Security officers interrogated her for three hours as her phone was confiscated and luggage was searched.
When that ended, it was officially accepted into Canada. At this point, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved in and arrested her for an extradition request from the United States.
The United States wants Meng to be tried on charges including fraud related to alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran, allegations it has denied.
A PowerPoint is at the heart of the issue
PowerPoint was used by Ms. Meng at a meeting with HSBC on August 22, 2013, and is seen as primary evidence against her.
Reuters news reports in previous months have raised questions about whether there has been a breach of trade sanctions on Iran by Hong Kong-based Skycom.
The disagreement was over whether Skycom, the seller of communications equipment, was just a business partner of Huawei – or a front for it to hide its activities in Iran.
The United States claims that in the meeting – meeting with a PowerPoint presentation – Ms Meng misled HSBC about the true nature of Huawei’s relationship with Skycom and that in turn exposed the bank to the risk of violating sanctions against Iran.
Its attorneys say the US misled the court, particularly with regard to PowerPoint, by deleting key information in two slides that showed HSBC was not, in fact, in the dark about the true nature of the Skycom / Huawei relationship.
Meng’s lawyers unleash a legal battle
Extradition hearings are still ongoing, and Ms Meng’s lawyers have launched a multi-pronged attack on the US extradition request itself.
An initial attempt to claim that the crime she was accused of committing in the United States was not a crime in Canada (although this can be appealed).
Another challenge focuses on politics around the issue.
Its lawyers allege that US President Donald Trump’s comments, which indicated his willingness to use the case as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with China, constitute an abuse of the process.
Another challenge has to do with her treatment at Vancouver Airport. Her lawyers say she has been treated ill.
They are fighting to uncover certain documents, including from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a national intelligence service, and are seeking to uncover the role US officials may have played in her arrest at the time.
A judge has already refused requests for some documents, which can in turn be appealed.
The result of all this is a legal process that will engage lawyers but is unlikely to move quickly.
Obviously, Meng’s lawyer would prefer them to win and be sent back to China as soon as possible. But if that was not likely and they suffered a series of defeats, they could switch to banning it being sent to the United States, which could entail the withdrawal of legal proceedings.
With so many different leads to the case that are already very unusual, and the possibility of appeal, the best estimate from some close to the case is that this could take at least five years and up to 10 years.
While the legal proceedings were underway, the impact of the case was widespread.
The arrest of such a prominent business figure led to outrage in China, and this month the country’s ambassador said Canada had been “exploited” and “partnered” by America while Washington had carried out a “barbaric act of bullying.”
HSBC has been placed in a difficult position with Chinese media questioning the extent of the bank’s cooperation with the United States in building an issue they describe as a political trap.
The bank, already caught between the West and China due to its position on Hong Kong, assured that it had only done what was legally required of it and that there was no trap.
The case also raises broader questions about which countries might arrest business executives if they received requests from the United States. This could worry Huawei executives, limit their travel, and also worry governments that might find themselves stuck between the US and China.
This has led to concerns that Western businessmen and other travelers may find themselves locked up by China to use as a bargaining chip.
Two Canadians were arrested days after Ms. Meng was arrested. Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were later 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 a swap for Ms Meng for the two men.
Mr Trudeau had previously criticized the use of “arbitrary detention as a tool to achieve political goals” and said that stopping her extradition could put more Canadians at risk.
Canada is concerned that it will be seen as having to shorten legal process, and it is also aware that this could risk angering the Trump administration, which has been set on a tougher approach in China.
It seems unlikely at the present time that Washington will abandon its case in its battles of a multi-sided attack against Huawei specifically and China in general.
Political dynamics could change over time, including after the US presidential election in November.
But for now, Ms. Meng’s residency in Canada shows no sign of ending soon – or becoming less controversial.