Kovrig and Spavor were picked up in December 2018 for alleged spying but critics call it ‘hostage diplomacy’.
Two American siblings prevented from leaving China since 2018 have been allowed back to the United States, according to a US official, shortly after the US ended an extradition case against a top Huawei executive.
Cynthia and Victor Liu had been barred from leaving China because of an “exit ban” – despite facing no criminal allegations. China lifted the restriction over the weekend and the US said the siblings were back home on Sunday.
Their father, former bank official Liu Changming, is one of China’s most wanted fugitives and faces fraud charges.
The exit of the two Americans follows an agreement that allowed Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou to return to China from Canada after US prosecutors reached a deal in a corruption case against her.
Within hours of the deal, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested shortly after Meng was and spent more than 1,000 days in custody in China, were released to return to Canada.
Critics accused China of “hostage diplomacy” over its treatment of the two men, who were accused of spying months after their initial detention. Beijing has denied that the arrests were linked.
The White House on Monday said the Canadians’ release was not a prisoner swap, but that their cases came up in a call between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on September 9.
The Justice Department said its decision on Meng’s case was reached independently.
“We welcome Cynthia and Victor Liu’s return to the United States on Sunday,” said a State Department spokesperson, adding that US consular staff in Shanghai helped facilitate the siblings’ exit.
“We will continue to advocate on behalf of all American citizens in the PRC subject to arbitrary detention and coercive exit bans.”
The White House declined to comment on the Americans who exited China.
Cynthia and Victor Liu’s mother, Sandra Han, continues to be detained on criminal charges in China.
Analysts have said that the release of Kovrig and Spavor, as well as the Liu siblings, shortly after Meng’s departure from Canada could be a troubling sign of a new era of confrontation between China and Western countries.
China, for instance, still holds Australian national Cheng Lei, who was known as the face of China’s English-language news channel, CGTN.
In August of last year, Cheng was abruptly removed from her post and was detained by Chinese authorities. Later, she was charged with “endangering China’s national security”.
In October 2020, Australian author Yang Hengjun was also detained and was charged with espionage. He went on trial in May, but the outcome of his case remains uncertain.
During that same period, diplomatic relations between China and Australia also worsened over issues such as the political repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as the tensions in the South China Sea.