WHENEVER CANADA’S ambassador to China visits Michael Kovrig in prison, Mr Kovrig hands over a list of books he wants to read next. In January he asked for “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. Like the unhappy hero of that novel, Mr Kovrig, a Canadian former diplomat, has done nothing wrong. Yet he has been stuck in a cell in Beijing for 800 days. The true reason for his ordeal has never been stated openly by Chinese authorities. His fate, and that of another Canadian, Michael Spavor, depends on a case neither man had anything to do with: the detention in Canada of a well-connected Chinese businesswoman, Meng Wanzhou.

The “two Michaels”, as they are known in Canada, appear to be hostages. In December 2018 they were taken into custody and later charged with spying. Many assume this was in retaliation for the arrest of Ms Meng, who is the chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecoms firm, and also the daughter of its founder, Ren Zhengfei. Ms Meng and Huawei are accused of violating sanctions against Iran. The United States’ Department of Justice (DoJ) had sought her arrest so that she could be extradited to America. (Ms Meng appeared in court on March 1st to begin the final round of her extradition hearing, which will end in May. Unlike the two Michaels, her detention is comfortable. She is staying in a luxurious house in Vancouver. She wears an electronic tag, but can see friends and go shopping.)

Canada’s government faces a conundrum: how should it deal with a powerful country that refuses to play by the same rules? Its experience so far suggests that when it comes to hostage diplomacy, liberal democracies with moral scruples are at a disadvantage, for the obvious reason that they don’t take hostages.

Some Canadian ex-ministers and diplomats have lobbied Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, to defy the United States and release Ms Meng, bending the rule of law so that the two Michaels can return home. Mr Trudeau has refused, pointing out that to intervene on behalf of Ms Meng would show China that all it has to do to gain leverage over Canada is arrest, as he put it, two “random Canadians”.

Some Canadians have accused Mr Trudeau of weakness in the face of Chinese bullying. He did not retaliate when, after Ms Meng’s arrest, China imposed a de facto ban on imports of Canadian canola, pork, beef and soya. His government has not formally banned Huawei from its 5G networks, as some other countries have. (China’s ambassador to Canada warned that such a ban would bring “repercussions”.) He has resisted calls from parliament to follow America in labelling the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang a “genocide”. The prime minister’s critics say he is out of step with the public mood: in 2019 two-thirds of Canadians viewed China unfavourably, up from just 45% a year earlier, according to the Pew Research Centre. This was the largest increase in negative sentiment across 12 rich democracies.

Mr Trudeau may perhaps have been overconfident in his ability to handle China. His late father Pierre Trudeau, a long-serving prime minister, established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1970. In 2015 Xi Jinping, China’s president, praised the elder Trudeau’s “extraordinary political vision”. As prime minister the junior Trudeau, who as a boy travelled to China with his father, became known affectionately there as “xiao tudou”, a play on his surname that means “little potato”, to his father’s “old potato”. He may have imagined that he had a special connection with the Communist Party leadership.

Supporters of Mr Trudeau argue that he is dealing pragmatically with an impossible situation. They point out how, after a dip, China’s purchases of canola and other goods have recovered somewhat. Last year Canada’s overall exports to China increased by 7.1%, to C$26.2n ($20.7bn). Mr Trudeau’s minority Liberal government also sharply criticised China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and made it easier for Hong Kong residents to come to Canada, angering the Chinese government. And Mr Trudeau did not stand in the way of a unanimous vote in parliament to apply the “genocide” label to atrocities in Xinjiang; the government abstained and let Liberal party members vote as they wished.

In February Marc Garneau, Canada’s foreign minister, issued a declaration with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and 56 other governments denouncing the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens by states for political purposes. The statement did not mention China by name—another of Mr Trudeau’s calibrations. But the message was received in Beijing. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, called the declaration a “despicable and hypocritical act”, and said it amounted to a “confession” by Canada that it had erred in detaining Ms Meng.

Chinese authorities have made plain, without saying so directly, that the fates of the two Michaels are intertwined with that of Ms Meng. In February Morgan Elliott, Huawei’s vice-president for government relations in Canada, almost said as much in a television interview. “Mr Ren, like any father, wants his daughter home, just as the families of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor want their family,” he said, referring to Huawei’s boss. “This is a political situation that requires a political discussion and political solution.”

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that to get the two Michaels home Canada will need America’s help. In Ottawa there exists a flicker of hope that such assistance will be more forthcoming with Joe Biden as president instead of Donald Trump.

But the odds still seem long for now. In December the Wall Street Journal reported that the DoJ was negotiating a possible settlement with Huawei’s lawyers that would let Ms Meng go free (perhaps with a substantial fine); otherwise the extradition case alone would probably drag on for years. Those talks appear to have died before Mr Trump left office, though they could be resumed. In February, after a virtual meeting with Mr Trudeau, Mr Biden promised he would work with Canada to get the two Michaels home. It is unclear, however, if the DoJ will pursue a legal settlement that would achieve that political goal. “Human beings are not bartering chips,” Mr Biden said. Mr Kovrig’s Kafkaesque nightmare suggests otherwise.