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Analysis

China’s secret prisons in spotlight over Canadians held since 2018

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The plight of two Canadians detained in China is a stark symbol of Beijing’s increased use of secret prisons and foreign nationals as political tools under President Xi Jinping, say human rights activists and former detainees.

Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and entrepreneur Michael Spavor are among almost 30,000 people who have been held in the facilities from 2013-2019, according to Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group co-founded by Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin, who was himself imprisoned in a secret prison.

Activists and former diplomats are urging the international community to maintain an assertive approach, arguing that quiet diplomacy is ineffective.

The Canadians were detained in December 2018 following the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei and daughter of the telecom group’s founder. Ms Meng was held after the US issued an extradition request over alleged violations of sanctions against Iran and has been living under house arrest in her house since 2018. Huawei has asserted that she is innocent of the charges.

Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor spent six months in secret prisons under a programme started in 2013 known as “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) and were only allowed to meet consular officials once during that time. They have been charged with espionage but the Canadian government has described the arrests as arbitrary and compared China’s approach to hostage taking.

Meng Wanzhou, finance chief of Huawei, at her home in Vancouver where she is under house arrest © REUTERS

China’s detention of foreign nationals as a political tool stretches back decades.

“It’s been nearly 50 years since I was held, and 50 years later we’re having the same thing again,” said Anthony Grey, a British journalist who was held under house arrest for two years from 1967.

Mr Grey was one of a dozen UK nationals detained following the arrest of a group of Chinese journalists in Hong Kong. The Chinese were alleged to have violated emergency regulations during violent protests and riots in the city, which was then under British rule. Mr Grey was released after several of the Chinese journalists had served their jail sentences.

China has also arrested citizens of Australia, with which it has had fraught relations in recent years. Most recently, Beijing detained Cheng Lei, a journalist who worked for Chinese state television, in August, after Australian intelligence staff raided the homes of Chinese journalists in the country.

Individuals detained on national security suspicions are typically held under RSDL for up to six months. Safeguard Defenders says about 400 were taken into detention in 2013, the first year the programme was launched, and increased to more than 6,000 in 2019. It says detainees are abused psychologically and tortured, with tactics including keeping lights on in cells continuously and sleep deprivation.

Line chart of Number of people taken into residential surveillance at a designated location per year showing China's soaring detainees in secret prisons

Chinese police can detain people for long periods without evidence outside of the RSDL system. In 2013, corporate investigators Peter Humphrey, a UK citizen, and his Chinese-born American wife Yu Yingzeng were held for almost two years, during which time police tried to force them to confess to a variety of crimes. They denied all allegations.

“We have a new rising power which is acting as a bully, and is building up an inventory of prisoners who become bargaining chips in its negotiations with countries on almost anything,” said Mr Humphrey.

China’s supporters see its actions as commensurate with others. Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei, believes the charges against his daughter are politically motivated and has recommended the book The American Trap by Frédéric Pierucci, a French former executive at power group Alstom, about his jailing on extraterritorial corruption charges in the US when General Electric was trying to take over part of the French company. Mr Pierucci has alleged that Washington uses extraterritorial laws to attack countries competing with US strategic industries.

Foreign governments are loath to give in to Beijing’s demands but also want to maintain good relations with the world’s second-largest economy.

“I don’t think quiet diplomacy works with the Chinese Communist party. Quiet diplomacy depends on the two parties having a shared set of values,” said Roger Garside, a British diplomat in Beijing at the time of Mr Grey’s arrest. “That means respect for the rule of law and norms of international diplomatic behaviour. The CCP under Xi’s leadership has demonstrated it rejects any notion of universal values.”

Mr Garside supports Magnitsky-style economic sanctions, which target specific individuals accused of human rights abuses and have been used against Russia.

Anthony Grey, centre, was held under house arrest in China for 2 years from 1967 after a group of Chinese journalists were arrested in Hong Kong © Michael Webb/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mr Grey recalls that when he was arrested, he wished the UK would offer up what the Chinese authorities wanted. But “it’s blackmail” he said, adding that he would not advocate for Canada to put aside the rule of law and release Ms Meng.

Harrison Li, the son of Kai Li, a US citizen detained in China on national security suspicions in 2016, backs the robust approach. “If governments don’t speak out on this issue and don’t try and tackle it head on then it is only going to continue,” he said.

Earlier this year, a group of former high-profile Canadian parliamentarians and legal experts urged Ottawa to consider releasing Ms Meng. Justin Trudeau, prime minister, rejected the suggestion, saying it would embolden China.

For now, supporters are focused on maintaining awareness of the Canadians’ plight.

Charlie Parton, a former British diplomat and now at RUSI, a security think-tank, spearheaded the #FreeChinaHostages campaign, urging people to send Christmas cards to the detainees to Chinese embassies worldwide.

“One aim is to show the world the nature of the beast. Despite propounding ideas of win-win and shared humanity, the Chinese Communist party is an unpleasant organisation,” he said.

After Mr Grey’s release, he was told that sackfuls of Christmas cards had been delivered to China’s foreign ministry in a similar effort — but had been burnt.

“I don’t know that any of these cards would reach the two Michaels in prison, but I know that I was very deeply moved by the fact that people cared enough to write cards to me, and I think they would be moved too,” he said.



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Analysis

Ronaldo’s Coke moment signals shifting balance of power in sport

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s rejection of strategically placed Coca-Cola bottles at a press conference at the Euro 2020 football championships this week has left sponsors and tournament organisers scrambling to limit the damage on endorsement deals.

The gesture by the Portugal star, who on Monday picked up a bottle of water saying “Agua . . . no Coca-Cola”, was mimicked by other players including Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli, while France’s Paul Pogba removed a Heineken bottle during media commitments later in the week.

Uefa, European football’s governing body, has contacted national federations to tell teams to avoid actions that could affect tournament sponsors, each of which have paid about $30m to endorse the competition.

But there are no specific rules to police how players must discuss the corporate partners for the Euros. And there has been no reprimand of Ronaldo who, according to one senior European football executive “is so powerful, no one can tell him what to do”. 

That admission is a reflection of the changing power balance at the top of the world’s biggest sports. Highly paid athletes appear more willing to challenge the media and marketing deals struck by the leagues and competitions they play in, if those financial imperatives clash with their own carefully tailored corporate image or sincerely-held beliefs. 

Ronaldo’s viral moment led some media outlets to claim that the incident wiped billions from the market value of the US drinks company. But Coca-Cola’s shares slipped about 1 per cent in morning trade before the press conference even began, a drop that accounts for most of the day’s losses. 

The stock has fallen steadily over the days since, though it managed to recover some ground on Thursday, closing higher for the day at $54.95 .

While Locatelli appeared to be joking by following Ronaldo’s lead, Pogba is a practising Muslim who on Tuesday removed a Heineken bottle placed in front of him at a post-match press conference, though the item was from the Dutch brewers’ line of alcohol-free beers. 

Muslim athletes have cited their religious beliefs for declining to take part in marketing activities with alcoholic drinks brands and gambling groups. “We fully respect everyone’s decision when it comes to their beverage of choice,” said Heineken. 

Last month, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open tournament rather than take part in compulsory press conferences, suggesting they were damaging to her mental health. Post-match media access to players is considered key to the value of television deals for tournaments. 

Ronaldo is known for sharing pictures of his intense training regime on Instagram, where he has roughly 300m followers, and has expressed disapproval at his children imbibing fizzy drinks.

Many of his sponsorship deals fit this image of healthy living, such as with sportswear group Nike and nutrition company Herballife — endorsements that have helped him become the first footballer to earn $1bn over his career, according to Forbes. 

However, the player has also previously appeared in adverts for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“I have to say there was a collective raise of eyebrows in the industry about Ronaldo, who has a long record of brand endorsements, some of which don’t fit with his apparent approach to life,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “There was a lot of cynicism.”

Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola executive who previously spent nearly two decades managing the company’s sports partnerships, said the incident was an example of rights infringement, with the sponsor potentially entitled to damages. 

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open rather than take part in compulsory press conferences © Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

“Sometimes [rights infringement] can come from a competitor ambushing the event, sometimes it can come from the organisers, sometimes it’s a player,” he said. “In general this is a big distraction for the event and the companies which invested a lot.” 

Though using bottles as product placement is a contractual obligation of the deals that Uefa has struck with Coca-Cola and Heineken, neither brand has demanded compensation, according to a person close to the discussions. 

Uefa said players “can choose their preferred beverage” at the tournament. Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment. 

England manager Gareth Southgate defended corporate sponsorships on Thursday, saying “their money at all levels helps sport to function”. That stance was supported by his team’s captain, Harry Kane, who added: “Obviously the sponsors are entitled to do what they want if they’ve paid the money to do so.”

There have long been precedents for athletes favouring their own marketing deals over the groups they play for. At the 1992 Olympics, US basketball player Michael Jordan opted to cover the Reebok logo on his official uniform with a strategically draped American flag, a gesture of loyalty to Jordan’s personal sponsor, Nike.

But more recently athletes have gained greater control over which brands they are associated with, thanks in large part to their direct link to fans through social media. 

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Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, has accrued a suite of her own sponsors and a large social media following thanks to her brilliant playing record, but also frank advocacy for racial injustice and mental health. 

This breed of independent-minded athletes at the top of sport is forcing a rethink of the longstanding marketing strategies adopted by competition organisers and their sponsors.

“There’s still going to be a billion servings of Coke poured today, tomorrow and the next way,” said Crow. “But the question is: is there a better way of doing it? I suspect there is a better way to get its message across than plonking bottles in front of athletes.”



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Analysis

Biden’s climate agenda bogged down in divided Congress

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President Joe Biden arrives back in the US this week after a foreign tour with a recurring theme: fighting climate change.

But he returns to a Washington where his own party feels increasing anxiety that his administration’s climate agenda will fall short at home.

Bipartisan talks over Biden’s infrastructure proposals — which would spend billions on crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels, as well as record sums on clean energy — are flagging. While Republicans and moderate Democrats try to scale down the package, progressives warn they will withhold support if climate provisions are stripped out. 

“If there is no climate, there is no deal,” Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, said this week. “When the ship sails on infrastructure, energy infrastructure cannot be left on the docks.”

Democratic party leaders are now exploring another path to enact Biden’s climate plan. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, on Wednesday met his members on the budget committee to find ways to fund greener electricity, zero-carbon vehicles and manufacturing and farming that keeps many climate goals intact.

While potentially more viable, the strategy could also weaken Biden’s climate policies. Legislation would be shoehorned into the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — a special procedure that enables Democrats to use their slim majority but constrains the scope of what can pass.

Column chart of US generation by fuel source, in a scenario where emissions fall 90 per cent by 2040 (TWh) showing Cutting carbon from electric sector would displace coal and gas

Biden has pledged for the US to cut emissions by at least 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. He is aiming for carbon-free electricity by 2035 — a target that would mean none generated by burning coal or natural gas unless their emissions can be captured.

These lofty climate policies were a centrepiece of Biden’s diplomacy on his first international trip. He told G7 leaders in Cornwall that global warming is “the existential problem facing humanity”, and helped launch a $2bn fund for countries to shift away from coal.

In Washington, however, Democrats look unlikely to pass ambitious climate legislation with the support of Republicans given the 50-50 party split in the Senate and rules requiring at least 60 votes to move most important bills.

“I think there is reason to be concerned,” said Dan Lashof, US director of the World Resources Institute, referring to the fate of climate proposals in Congress.

“It was always going to be a challenge, to get investment at the scale that is needed, to turn the corner on climate change,” he added. “Getting very substantial investments in infrastructure and clean energy technologies is crucial to reaching the US emissions targets.”

The reconciliation process proposed by Schumer requires a simple majority vote, but rules limit it to tax and spending measures. Far-reaching initiatives to drive down the US’s 6.5bn tonnes of annual carbon emissions would be in jeopardy.

Using reconciliation would make it hard to establish a “clean electricity standard,” a core part of Biden’s plans to tackle emissions. The standard would set ever-stricter emissions targets for electric utilities, which are the source of a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The clean electricity standard is a much harder provision to enact through reconciliation and the reason is pretty simple: it’s a standard,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Forcing the square peg of a clean electricity standard into the round opening of the reconciliation process will be very difficult.”

One workaround under discussion among Democrats is to pay incentives for clean electricity, achieving some of the goals of the electricity standard while fitting within the guidelines of reconciliation.

“It would involve the federal government becoming a partner in the transition, helping utilities that are making progress at the pace and scale necessary with financial investments,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Other parts of the Biden climate agenda — including expanding tax credits for wind and solar power and energy storage and creating a credit for power transmission lines — would be more straightforward under the reconciliation process. Policies that do not depend on legislation, such as vehicle emissions rules, can be directly imposed by the Biden administration and are expected soon.

Adding urgency to the legislative push are the midterm elections in 2022, when Democrats risk losing control of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

“The rest of the world is intimately familiar with midterm elections and how the US Senate works, because they are concerned that the domestic delivery of the climate promises is imperilled by the toxic politics here,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. 

Republicans have argued that the infrastructure proposals should focus more on roads, bridges, and construction projects and objected to provisions that would subsidise electric cars and support non-fossil energy. 

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Meanwhile, not all Democratic senators are aligned. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-producing state, is likely to have a decisive influence on the shape of any climate proposals as his vote would be needed to pass bipartisan or reconciliation bills.

Energy experts acknowledge that achieving zero-carbon electricity by 2035 would be daunting even if a clean electricity standard was to pass, because of an ageing US grid. 

Patrick Luckow, analyst at IHS Markit, expects power demand to rapidly increase over the next decade as more vehicles and home heating systems run on electricity. “When you are adding renewable energy and getting rid of fossil fuels, there is demand growth as well, which makes it more challenging,” he said.

Democrats say Biden needs a win on climate for political reasons as much as environmental ones. “The Democrats can’t risk the failure of Biden’s climate and economic policy. It would cripple the president,” Bledsoe said.



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Mexico enjoys break from economic gloom with the help of Biden

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Business gloom has been so pervasive in Mexico since Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in 2018 on a strident anti-establishment platform that a recent burst of optimism about the country’s growth prospects feels like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.

Last October, the IMF was forecasting that Mexico would grow just 3.5 per cent in 2021 after shrinking a seasonally adjusted 8.5 per cent last year during the pandemic. Yet as the economy rapidly opens up, coronavirus infections remain low and the effects of the giant US stimulus ripple across the border, many economists and bankers here now see Mexico expanding almost twice as fast. 

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country.

“Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

But few believe this year’s US-inspired growth spurt heralds a bright new dawn for Mexico. The expansion, bankers and economists say, is almost entirely thanks to President Joe Biden’s policies, rather than López Obrador’s. The biggest beneficiaries are Mexico’s export-oriented manufacturing companies in the north of the country and the tourism industry, while firms servicing the domestic market struggle with depressed demand.

“Mexico will grow 6 per cent this year whether it likes it or not, dragged along by the US,” said one dealmaker who runs an investment fund in the country. “It will grow quite well in 2022 also. That’s not the point. What matters is what happens after 2023.”

Here the picture is much less sunny. A near-universal complaint in the business community is that López Obrador’s hostile rhetoric, constant attacks on regulators and the judiciary, his unpredictable policy announcements and preference for state-owned companies have scared away the foreign money that should be coming to Mexico to take advantage of preferential access under the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement.

“The ritual of bringing the global CEO to Mexico to announce a new investment is over,” said one leading member of the international business community. “There is a pause. Nobody is leaving the country but nobody is proposing incremental investment either.”

The example cited most often as deterring investors is the energy sector, where López Obrador is attempting to reverse an opening to private money begun under his predecessor and revert to a state-run fossil fuelled model, throttling a once-promising renewable energy boom in the process.

“The problem is investment and the issue is medium-term and long-term,” said Gerardo Esquivel, deputy governor of the central bank. “It’s been stagnant since 2015-16.”

Urzúa said that public investment would be only 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product this year, barely more than half the level it should run at. Much of the spending is directed towards López Obrador’s pet projects, which include a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and a new tourist railway around the Yucatán peninsula.

Despite his government’s focus on social programmes to help the poor, López Obrador stands out from other populists for his stubborn refusal to increase borrowing to allow more spending. Most economists here do not believe that his decision last week to switch finance minister and appoint longtime ally Rogelio Ramírez de la O, 72, will change this.

Those close to the president say his aversion to debt stems from a conviction that the Mexican governments he admires most in the 1960s and 1970s were crippled by excessive borrowing. “Amlo turns into a panther when you suggest that he should take on more debt,” said one former minister. “It’s simply not something you can discuss. He will not spend.”

Even amid the pandemic, López Obrador was one of the very few presidents in the world to reject extra borrowing to alleviate suffering, despite the fact that Mexico had the fiscal space to do so. Critics dubbed his policies “austericide”. And while public investment remains weak, the president does little to encourage the private sector to take up the slack.

“López Obrador must promote private sector investment,” said the CEO of one Mexican bank, adding that the private sector accounted for 86 per cent of Mexico’s total investment. “There is no way to grow without private investment. “This rejection of private investment has to stop.”

And as for Mexico’s recovery: “To grow 6 per cent this year and 3.5 next year is not magic, it is inertia.”



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