In late June 2020, I received an email from a journalist with The National Post who was interested in interviewing me for a front page story he was running on China, Canada and the 2 detained Michaels in Beijing. He wanted my opinion and my book to feature in the article. Naturally, I agreed to his interview. What follows is the article he wrote based on our 45 min conversation:
“‘No room for soft right now’: Canadian woman whose husband was detained in China shares her hard lessons”
By Stuart Thomson June 25th 2020
“Karen Patterson worked tirelessly for nearly a year to free her husband from detention in China.
Ten years later, she’s written a book about the ordeal and has some advice for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he works to free two Canadians currently detained by the Chinese government.
“I think he just needs to be a little bit more forceful in what he’s saying. This is unacceptable. There’s no room for soft right now,” said Patterson, who lives in Calgary.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been detained by China for more than 550 days and Patterson says she can sympathize with the ordeal faced by the two men and their families.
Patterson’s Chinese ex-husband was arrested after a peaceful protest and then beaten in prison. He spent nearly a year in jail while Patterson rallied support from the Canadian government and human rights groups. In the end, he was quietly released from confinement at a remote location, with no notice to him or his family. Patterson is now divorced from Wu Yuren, but says he has encouraged her to tell the story.
Patterson said she’s worried about the mental health of the two Canadians who were arrested in China after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1, 2018 in response to an extradition request from the United States.
What I learned also is that China doesn’t adhere to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners
“If they’re not getting sunlight after 560 days and not being able to talk to their families, that’s going to have not only physical but mental and emotional effects,” said Patterson, in a telephone interview with the National Post.
Patterson concedes that her situation is different, based on the detention of Meng in Canada, but said she would encourage the families to assemble a competent support team, including international human rights groups, never give up hope and “know that if they are formally charged for something they didn’t do, that evidence will be created,” she said.
Patterson also said she was glad to see the Kovrig family speaking out after espionage charges were announced last week by the Chinese government.
“Just from what I’ve gone through, being loud and upfront at the very beginning was really what motivated people around me to get my husband out,” said Patterson.
In an interview with the CBC, Vina Nadjibulla, the wife of Kovrig, said Canada’s minister of justice could immediately end the extradition of Meng and free her husband.
“The minister can act. Whether the minister should act is a second question. And that is a conversation we should be having instead of hiding behind,” Nadjibulla said. “We as Canadians, as a Canadian government, have to take action to bring him home.”
Earlier this week, Trudeau said he was “disappointed” by the espionage charges laid against Kovrig and Spavor, which Patterson said is an example of the government’s light touch on the matter.
“We can be disappointed by failing an exam or if our children aren’t doing the dishes or something,” said Patterson, who said she was surprised to see a stronger statement coming from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It was the cumulative effect of international pressure that eventually freed her husband, Patterson said.
The ordeal started for Wu in 2010 when he launched a protest march in an effort to stop a small art colony from being destroyed by developers. The protesters journeyed down the same street where Tiananmen Square is located, infuriating the authorities and attracting the interest of the international media.
The demonstration worked and the artists were compensated for the property but Patterson believes that Wu became a marked man.
When he accompanied a friend to the police station a few months later for an unrelated matter he was immediately detained by police and beaten, Patterson says.
Wu was eventually charged with striking a police officer, but Patterson says she’s seen the videotape of the incident and it’s clear that the officer injured his finger in the course of beating Wu. Patterson and Wu’s lawyer were not allowed to view an X-ray taken in the days after Wu was detained and beaten.
For nearly a year, Patterson worked to get her husband freed from jail, enlisting the help of the media, other activists and the Canadian government. She says former Canadian ambassador David Mulroney was particularly helpful in providing advice and moral support as she dealt with the ordeal.
“What I learned also is that China doesn’t adhere to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners. And so I’m not surprised to hear also that just from watching the news that maybe the two Michaels are not getting that sort of attention as well,” she said.
“My husband wouldn’t have had consular assistance because he was a Chinese citizen. However, the Stephen Harper government was very good. They received the campaign letters that were being sent to them and then his office would forward them to the office of the ambassador to China from Canada at the time, which was David Mulroney. And he was amazing.”
Based on that experience, Patterson was flabbergasted that Canada was trying to navigate the volatile situation with Kovrig and Spavor without an ambassador to China after John McCallum resigned from the job in January last year. Former McKinsey & Co executive Dominic Barton wasn’t appointed to the role until September leaving a nine-month period without an ambassador.
Eventually, Wu went to trial and Patterson was the only person allowed in to watch the proceedings. She believes it was vital to Wu’s chance at freedom that they had the full force of the Canadian government, human rights groups and the global press on her side.
“I don’t think they realized that my husband was married to an ex-pat when they beat him or I don’t think they would have beat him,” said Patterson.
Nearly a year later, Wu was released quietly, “out the backdoor,” according to Patterson, about 150 kilometres outside of Beijing.
Patterson said the process of writing the book was a difficult ordeal. She tried to write it in 2012 after Wu was freed from jail but suffered post-traumatic stress that she had no idea was lurking beneath the surface.
But when Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China, Patterson said it gave her a new sense of urgency to get her story out.
“So for me, it was therapeutic. It was also kind of like finishing it off, so that I wouldn’t have to think about it as much,” said Patterson.”