Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s triumphant return to Beijing was widely broadcast and viewed by audience across China this week. Meng was detained at the Vancouver airport, Canada, in 2018 after the US made an extradition request in connection with the Iran sanctions violation. Meng was released from detention after the US Department of Justice and her legal team reached a deferred prosecution.
Chinese state media hailed Meng Wanzhou as a “hero” and gave her a grand welcome at the Shenzhen airport as thousands of people gathered to see her. The media used Meng to stoke nationalist sentiment.
The live broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV) of Meng’s landing received 400 million likes, according to Beijing News. The hashtag, “Meng is going to return to the motherland”, was viewed 1.57 billion times on Weibo where the hashtag remained the top trend for two days. “Meng Wanzhou’s chartered plane flies around the North Pole to avoid US airspace” was the second most viewed trend. It was a government-chartered flight, according to CCTV on Weibo.
“Every cloud has a silver lining. It was an invaluable experience,” said Meng in her parting message outside the Vancouver court. With teary eyes, she ended her extradition trial that garnered global media attention.
US comes under attack
“This is the result of the firm leadership of the CCP Central Committee, of the untiring efforts of China’s government, of the efforts of the Chinese people, it is a major victory of the Chinese people,” said an editorial in People’s Daily.
“The essence of the Meng case was that the United States tried to obstruct or even interrupt China’s development process,” said another state media editorial.
Chinese experts said Meng’s freedom symbolises a new and aggressive China that won’t back down against “American imperialism”.
“This reminded the Chinese that ‘the American imperialism is a paper tiger’, that they can’t break you as long as you don’t give up,” said Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
Before arriving in Shenzhen, Meng wrote a personal blog post which was extensively shared by state media.
“I was about to throw myself into the arms of the great mother of the motherland. The motherland, after three years of absence, is close to the horizon. Feeling closer to the hometown is even more timid, and tears have blurred my eyes.” Meng Wanzhou wrote in a personal post.
Controlling the release narrative
Chinese censors tried to control the narrative on social media about the conditions on which Meng was released.
Chinese state media emphasised that Meng Wanzhou had pleaded “not guilty”. The intent was to show that Meng’s trial was politically motivated, and she emerged unscathed. On the contrary, Meng “acknowledged helping to conceal the company’s direct dealings in Iran” under the deferred prosecution deal. But she didn’t have to plead guilty in court. The deal appears to be a bargain that would allow Meng and the Chinese government to claim victory before the public.
“Meng’s admissions confirm the crux of the government’s allegations in the prosecution of this financial fraud,” said Nicole Boeckmann, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
A series of social media posts on WeChat, which had Meng wearing the ankle monitoring device, and the posts on Meng’s expensive dresses, were censored on 25 September.
On 26 September, the two Canadians detained in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were released. Chinese state media said the two were “granted bail for medical reasons”. But experts believe Meng’s release is part of a deal that resulted in the freeing of the two Canadians.
White House has denied it was a prisoner swap deal between China and Canada.
“I think it’s important to note and to be very clear about this, there is no link,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
What happens to US-China ties?
At the Shenzhen airport, Meng Wanzhou thanked President Xi Jinping in her speech.
“President Xi is concerned about the safety of all the Chinese citizens, and he also took my matter to heart, which makes me deeply moved. I also thank all relevant departments for their support and help in this process,” Meng said at the Shenzhen airport.
“After Meng Wanzhou was unreasonably detained in early December 2018, the Chinese party and government attached great importance to it, and President Xi Jinping personally cared about it,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said. Her remark was the second most viewed trend on Baidu.
China hopes that Meng’s return will mark a significant departure in the US’ Trump-era China policy. Meng was detained when former President Donald Trump met Xi Jinping in Argentina for the G20 Summit.
The timing of Meng’s release on the same day as the leaders of Quad security dialogue met in Washington DC may have been planned to send a message of rapprochement to Beijing.
On Monday, China allowed two US citizens to leave the mainland and return to their home country. China’s decision appears to be linked to Meng’s agreement in New York.
The Meng debacle was like an opera that unfolded in public. China learned that detaining citizens as a bargaining chip is an effective measure of coercion, and the playbook might be repeated in the future. The US-China relations are unlikely to return to the pre-Trump era.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)