Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou: a goldfish in the bowl that is the world’s biggest story

  • How the drama of Meng Wanzhou’s bail hearing played out in a Vancouver courtroom, behind two layers of bulletproof glass
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 8:49pm

When Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou appeared on Wednesday in a Vancouver courtroom, clad in an unbranded green tracksuit, the moment was witnessed by a single reporter from the local Vancouver Sun newspaper who happened to notice her name on the hearings list that morning.

By the end of the day, Meng’s arrest in Canada at the request of Washington was the biggest story in the world.

And when her bail hearing resumed on Friday, Meng entered court to see about 100 reporters, craning to look at her through two layers of bulletproof glass.

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Faced with overwhelming media interest, court authorities shifted proceedings to the high-security, high-capacity Courtroom 20, purpose-built 16 years ago for the Air India terror trial.

The glass encasement gave the court and its players the look of goldfish in a bowl.

“We’ve booked these 20 seats,” a lawyer on Meng’s team told an armed sheriff overseeing the public gallery. The lawyer waved her hands over the two front rows closest to Meng and tried to shoo away reporters to make room for Huawei’s team of executives and an overflow of the tech firm’s lawyers.

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The sheriff nodded at the reporters who grumbled and made way, but two courtroom artists who had dashed to the best seats in the house were digging in.

“Well, we need to see everything and we were here first,” said one, defiantly unpacking her sketch pad. The lawyer sighed.

The sheriff pointed to a seat that appeared to have been reserved by Team Huawei in the front row.

“Are you saving this seat for the husband?” the sheriff asked, loudly. Reporters leaned forward.

The lawyer sighed again and pulled the sheriff into a tight whisper. The seat remained empty for the entire morning.

The phalanx of Meng’s supporters could be roughly divided according to the cut of their suits. There were the Huawei executives, crisp and perfect, including senior vice-president for corporate affairs Scott Bradley. Then the lawyers, local and Chinese, dressed for a day in the office, some joking lightly with reporters.

But the centre of gravity was held by two men in the front row in dowdy grey suits, whispering in Mandarin. One wore an enamel Chinese flag pin on his lapel.

“I have no comment,” he said, before he could even be properly asked to provide one or identify himself, as he walked briskly away during a break in proceedings.

Meng’s voice went unheard during the whole hearing. Her local lawyer, David Martin, greeted her warmly in the morning, clasping both her hands in his. Like a scene from a silent film, they laughed and chatted soundlessly behind the glass, with the audio turned off before the court was in session.

There were no subtitles, unfortunately. “Any lip-readers in the house?” joked a reporter.

But Meng’s initial body language belied the stakes, which were soon laid out by John Gibb-Carsley, the lawyer representing Canada’s attorney general. Meng was accused of multiple fraud charges in the US, he said, which related to supposed breaches of sanctions against Iran. She faces up to 30 years’ jail on each count.

Later, Martin told Mr Justice William Ehrcke that Meng posed no flight risk and should be granted bail.

To flee would shame her in front of her father, Ren Zhengfei – who is Huawei’s founder – and all of China, said Martin.

“Her father would not recognise her. Her colleagues would hold her in contempt. She would be a pariah,” he said.

Meng leaned forward in her seat and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

When the hearing adjourned, she was led away with her head bowed, a goldfish in a bowl that is the biggest story in the world.