SHENZHEN: This screen grab made from video shows Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou waving as she steps out of the plane upon arrival yesterday following her release. - AFP

SHENZEN: Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou returned to China yesterday shortly after two Canadians released from prison in China also arrived in Calgary, ending a bitter diplomatic row that has poisoned ties for three years. Meng and the two Canadians - former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor - were detained in a bitter spat critics have called "hostage diplomacy".

Meng, the 49-year-old daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the billionaire founder of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, was granted release in a Vancouver court hearing after three years of house arrest in Canada while fighting extradition to the United States. This came hours after US prosecutors announced an agreement under which fraud charges against her are to be suspended and eventually dropped.

She then quickly boarded a flight to the southern city of Shenzhen, returning to China for the first time since her arrest at Vancouver's international airport at the behest of US authorities in Dec 2018. Meng received a red-carpet welcome as her flight landed, according to a live feed on state broadcaster CCTV, with Huawei employees waiting on the tarmac as a staffer in full protective gear held a bouquet of flowers.

Meanwhile, the two detained Canadians arrived back in Calgary, western Canada yesterday , and were shown on TV being greeted and hugged by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The "two Michaels" - as they have been dubbed by international media - were detained just days after Meng on what Ottawa has contended were "trumped up" espionage charges. In turn, Beijing called Meng's case "a purely political incident".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "the US Government stands with the international community in welcoming the decision" to release the men. Speaking to reporters before heading to China, Meng said: "Over the past three years, my life has been turned upside down. It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, wife and a company executive." China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said yesterday that the detention of Meng was an "incident of political persecution against a Chinese citizen".

The resolution of the case removes a deep thorn in the relationship between Beijing, Washington and Ottawa, with China accusing the US of a political attack on one of its technology titans. Beijing also accused Ottawa of doing Washington's bidding by arresting and holding Meng, known inside Huawei as the "princess" of the company and its possible future leader.

Washington had accused her of wire fraud and deceiving HSBC bank, saying she tried to hide violations of US sanctions on Iran by Huawei affiliate Skycom. But on Friday, US prosecutors settled for Meng agreeing to a statement of facts in the case. In exchange, they agreed to defer the charges until 2022, and then drop them if Meng abides by the terms of the agreement.

In China, news of Meng's agreement was being scrubbed from the Internet. State news agency Xinhua said she was returning to China "through unremitting efforts of the Chinese government", while the editor of state-run Global Times said she had been "finally released on a not guilty plea". A red banner hanging at Shenzhen airport arrivals hall read "Welcome home Meng Wanzhou" and a crowd of several hundred supporters gathered waving Chinese flags and banners.

Some chanted "Go Huawei!" and sang the national anthem. "I think China is going to... turn Meng Wanzhou's release into a big victory, a diplomatic victory," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor of Political Science at Hong Kong Baptist University. He said the government would build a propaganda campaign to "ignore the accusations against her and give the illusion that she was wrongly accused of crimes she never committed."

The charges and Meng's arrest were enmeshed in a broader campaign against Huawei. Washington says the firm has close links to the Chinese government and military, accusations it denies. The company yesterday said it will "continue to defend itself against the allegations" in US courts. Caught in between, Ottawa sought to rally allies, including Washington, to hike pressure on Beijing to release the two Canadians.

Both were put on trial in March this year. In August, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison, while there had been no decision in Kovrig's case. "All the while Beijing has insisted that this is not a case of hostage diplomacy - but now they have made it abundantly clear that it is a hostage exchange," said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. "I think it will probably send the wrong lesson to China - that hostage diplomacy works." - AFP