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When Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou arrived in Shenzhen after nearly three years’ confinement in Vancouver, 430 million Chinese viewers tuned into a livestream by China’s state broadcaster, while posts about her racked up more than a billion views.

Absent from Chinese state media was any mention of the release of two Canadian citizens by Chinese authorities within minutes of Ms. Meng boarding her plane.

Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave, and businessman Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities on the same day in December 2018, shortly after Ms. Meng was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition request from the U.S. The men were charged with espionage and held in detention, largely cut off from the outside world, in what was widely seen as retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest.

The announcement from Canadian officials that Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor were heading home to Canada came after the U.S. revealed on Friday that it had reached an agreement with Ms. Meng to drop wire and bank-fraud charges in exchange for an admission of other wrongdoing.

While media outside China analyzed at length the timing of the Canadians’ release in relation to Ms. Meng’s, Chinese media ignored it almost completely, instead casting Ms. Meng’s release as the product of heroic, albeit unspecified, efforts on the part of the Communist Party.

The party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily and state broadcaster China Central Television both seized on Ms. Meng’s return to tout the party’s determination to safeguard the rights of its citizens abroad. The Communist Party’s anticorruption body drew parallels with government evacuations of Chinese citizens from dangerous situations in Yemen and Afghanistan.

“The great Communist Party of China has always been the backbone of the Chinese people," the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said on its website.

The propaganda push comes as China pursues a more confrontational approach in its disagreements with the U.S. and other Western countries, setting aside its past preference for understated diplomacy in favor of an aggressive “Wolf Warrior" ethos. Foreign Ministry officials say the shift is being driven by demands from leader Xi Jinping and pressure to stay in step with the increasingly nationalistic tone of Chinese public opinion online.

In highlighting the release of Ms. Meng without acknowledging the steps China took to get her back, Chinese leaders are trying to preserve the idea that they are capable of winning the respect of Western powers by muscling their way through contentious issues, according to Victor Shih, a China politics scholar at University of California, San Diego.

“The Chinese government most likely wanted to create an impression that it was China’s power and smart policies that led to her release and not China’s willingness to make concessions," Mr. Shih said. “For the general population, it’s probably quite successful."

One of the few Chinese outlets to report on the release of the Canadian men was the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, which on Sunday cited an unnamed government department in saying that the two men had been let go for medical reasons. In a separate English report, the newspaper also denied allegations that Beijing had engaged in “hostage diplomacy" but offered no details about the state of the men’s health.

A scattering of internet users raised questions about why the men had been allowed to leave the country, since both had faced espionage charges. Mr. Spavor was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison in a verdict last month, while Mr. Kovrig was still awaiting a verdict.

“Whether or not the handling of the cases of these two Canadians were linked to Meng Wanzhou’s case, China must have a legal basis for allowing them to return home," human-rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan wrote in a widely read post on the popular messaging app WeChat. The post was later taken down.

On the Twitter-like Weibo platform, several others said they saw the Canadians as bargaining chips and approved of them being exchanged for Ms. Meng. “It has to be said that we are politically clever," wrote one user.

The overwhelming majority of commenters, however, mirrored state media in portraying China as winning a war of wills with Canada and the U.S., decorating their posts with Chinese flags, red roses and raised-fists emoticons.

“The Chinese side will never accept any form of political coercion," read a comment that attracted tens of thousands of likes on Weibo’s tightly controlled platform. It “will never allow Chinese citizens to become victims of political persecution in other countries."

CCTV noted that viewers of its livestream showing Ms. Meng descending from the cabin door of a government-chartered Air China airplane outnumbered the populations of the U.S. and Canada combined.

“The hero’s welcome is in line with the narrative of ‘[The West is] trying to stop us because we’re getting strong,’ " said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Xi thinks China is strong enough that it doesn’t need to factor in Western sentiment and sensibilities."

Much of the social-media discussion centered on a speech that Ms. Meng delivered in front of a crowd of flag-waving diplomats and Huawei employees after landing in Shenzhen. “If faith has a color, it must be China red," she said, in a line that was quoted widely across the Chinese internet.

The speech will likely add to Western perceptions of close ties between the Chinese Communist Party and Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecom equipment, despite the company’s insistence that it operates independently of Beijing, scholars said.

“What Beijing is missing is that this leads to an erosion of its global reputation," said Mr. Blanchette.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

 

 

 

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