As the world’s reporters gathered for the extradition hearing of Meng Wanzhou, each told a slightly different story
Early one morning in the winter of 2020, Zhang Sen got a call from his assignment editor in China. He was being asked to pack his bags and jump on a plane to Vancouver to cover a court case that had captivated the world.
Zhang is a Toronto-based video journalist and chief Canadian correspondent for China Central Television (CCTV)—covering stories that are of interest to the Chinese people and, more importantly, the Chinese government, which controls CCTV.
The case that brought Zhang (and countless other international media) to B.C. Supreme Court in January 2020 was the extradition hearing for Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile CFO of Huawei. The hearing was looking into whether Canada could deliver Meng to U.S. authorities for Huawei’s allegedly fraudulent activity—specifically, using a shell company to sell equipment to Iran, which violated U.S. sanctions against Iran, and falsely representing that information to Huawei’s bank, HSBC. Meng was apprehended by RCMP at Vancouver Airport on Dec. 1, 2018, en route to Mexico from Hong Kong.
Huawei is one of the world’s top technology companies, with a growing role in how global citizens communicate with each other. The case came against the backdrop of a trade dispute between China and the U.S., which accused China of dumping products in North America. Canada got caught in the middle of the duelling superpowers: shortly after Meng’s arrest, China threw two Canadians expats into jail on spying allegations and put trade restrictions on Canadian imports of beef, pork, canola and soybeans.
But, as Zhang explains it, the way the Meng story is told depends heavily on who the audience is. “Countries have different ideals, perspectives and ways they want to communicate with their people,” Zhang says, in Mandarin, out-side Meng’s Vancouver home.
Without a doubt, there are two stories being told. “The Chinese media [portrays] Meng as a victim, showcasing how the U.S. is being a bully and is trying to destroy Huawei as a company,” says Yanmin Yu, who teaches media and international relations at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
To make her case, Yu cites an English-language article, published in August 2019, in the Chinese-government-run People’s Daily News. In it, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa is quoted as saying: “the Meng Wanzhou incident is not just a judicial case, but the U.S. using state power to work with its certain ally to suppress a private high-tech Chinese enterprise on unwarranted charges. This is a typical bullying behaviour.”
While western media pursue leads, deliver scoops and uncover wrongdoing, in China journalists are required to file stories that strictly adhere to guidelines provided by the Ministry of the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
“[Journalists and major media outlet editors] have those editorial meetings every day,” notes Yu. “They receive from higher above what you can write about and what you cannot, and to what extent the kind of language can be used. So guidelines are very, very clear.” Information comes from the top down, adds Yu; whether it’s national, provincial or municipal news, “it’s all from the same source.”
Although Zhang is unwilling to get into details about how his stories get told in China, he admits there is a heavy editorial hand.
Meanwhile, the extradition hearings for Meng remained in limbo in late spring, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Expectations were that Meng and her lawyers would be back to court in June, arguing that her alleged conduct didn’t rise to the level of fraud under Canadian law.
When that happens, Zhang Sen expects to be back in Vancouver, reporting that story.