The ethics of American justice in the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou

The ethics of American justice in the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou
© Getty Images

Rarely does absolutism lead anywhere interesting in an ethical debate. Even more rarely does it yield any insight rooted in reality. If a person sees one side as wholly right, and the opposing side as completely wrong, there’s a good chance that person has overlooked some relevant facts and corresponding arguments that would stand to cloud their perceptions of both sides.

One certainly doesn’t need to be a moral philosopher to understand this. And yet, plenty of us forget it every day — especially when we’re reading the news.


The complicated story of the ongoing detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is one recent illustration of this zero-sum way of thinking. The facts, circumstances and implications of Meng’s detention appear to shape-shift depending on which side one aligns oneself.

American news consumers likely would summarize the fracas this way: When Meng Wanzhou, CFO of the largest telecom provider in the world, was detained in Canada on Dec. 1, 2018, at the request of the United States, it was because she and Huawei had fraudulently induced global financial institutions to violate U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran. Readers who dug into the deeper context might add that U.S. officials long have harbored national security concerns with regard to Huawei, worried that the company is too cozy with the Chinese government and military and could be covertly collecting data from countries with interests opposed to China’s.

In China, on the other hand, Huawei is a much-loved and respected company, and a major driver of the development of 5G technology. Huawei also is a major component of the country’s Made in China 2025 strategic plan, which lays out China’s goal to insource the majority of the world’s high-tech production by 2025. Both China and the United States are acutely aware of the lost business opportunities this plan, if successful, will represent for American technology companies.

In the eyes of many Chinese observers, then, Huawei is an intimidatingly formidable Chinese competitor in the tech space, and the United States’ actions with respect to Huawei, including Meng’s arrest, clearly are motivated by political and economic reasons.

An expected American rejoinder at this point would be that this simply isn’t how our country’s justice apparatus operates. In this country, we keep our political and economic ends separate from our legitimate pursuits of justice. It is second nature to Americans that our judiciary is independent from the political whims of the other branches of government. Unfortunately, that argument was tarnished last month, by our president. When President TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE told Reuters in December that he would “certainly intervene” in Meng’s extradition to the United States if it would help him reach a trade deal with China, he explicitly connected his political ends with the idea of American justice — two realms that must be kept completely separate if the United States is to claim ethical cleanliness here.

This brings us back to a central question that isn’t particularly easy to answer: Is Meng Wanzhou being treated ethically by the United States? To put it another way, was her arrest simply the next step in a legitimate, ongoing, legal investigation, or could it reasonably be viewed as a form of political hostage-taking? If there is even a chance it’s the latter, this should be a cause of great concern for all ethically-minded Americans. We purport to be a country that respects the autonomy and liberty of all individuals, unless they forfeit these rights. If Meng’s claims to these rights have been discarded because justice demands it, that’s one thing. If they’ve been dispensed with because of our country’s political or economic goals, that’s quite another.

The complexity of the issues related to U.S.-Chinese relations, the nature of Huawei, and Meng’s arrest make it extremely challenging to determine which side has the moral high ground. However, President Trump’s unfortunate comments looming over this unfolding story should give us pause, and we should not blindly adhere to the default position that the wheels of American justice are, in fact, turning ethically.  

Professor Robert Föehl is the executive in residence of business law and ethics at Ohio University for the Online Master of Business Administration program. Prior to joining Ohio University, he served as Target’s first director of corporate compliance and ethics, and has 17 years of corporate law experience, including four years as the chief legal officer for ACA International.