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Beijing’s New Hostage Diplomacy
Since Meng Wanzhou was detained in Vancouver for Huawei’s violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran, Beijing has detained three Caucasian Canadians, one of them a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig.
This development signifies a sharp turn from Beijing’s previous policy to mainly target Canadian citizens of Chinese ancestry when it wants to use hostages to advance its interests.
According to the Toronto Star’s report “The Forgotten Canadians Detained in China,” approximately 200 Canadian citizens are currently under police custody or have been sentenced and imprisoned in the People’s Republic of China.
While most of these cases are not political, these Canadians are at the mercy of the Chinese judicial system, where the justice dispensed is not anything resembling Western courts. Life in prison is also especially harsh where abuse and torture are common.
Hostage diplomacy isn’t a new trick by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over the past few decades, it has served as a bargaining chip by Beijing in seeking political and economic favors from Western countries.
The CCP released the high-profile dissidents Wang Dan in 1997 and Wei Jingsheng in 1998, ostensibly for “medical reasons” when, in fact, the gestures were deals negotiated behind closed doors to have America drop its support for a resolution condemning China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Both Wang and Wei were Chinese nationals serving long jail terms for pro-democracy activities. That was at a time when Western leaders were actively pursuing the so-called constructive engagement policy with Beijing, hoping to gradually turn the communist state to a civil society governed by rule of law.
As Beijing’s economy and military have grown stronger, China has begun to imprison naturalized U.S. citizens who were born in China.
In 2003, according to The New York Times article “Wife Fights for Husband Jailed in China,” Dr. Charles Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was imprisoned for attempting to raise the public’s awareness about the CCP’s persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Lee grew up in China, where he received his medical education. In 1994, Lee obtained a master’s degree in neuroscience at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign in 1994. In 1995, he conducted research at Harvard Medical School and passed the U.S. medical board exams.
In an interview with The Free Library, Lee said of his imprisonment: “They did not allow me to sleep for 92 consecutive hours. They forced me to stand up for 16 days, from morning to evening in front of prisoners.”
Lee also disclosed: “They forced me to do slave labor at the end of 2003, to make shoes, Christmas lights, and other things for U.S.A. export. The shoes used an industrial glue containing benzene. It’s very toxic and irritating. I felt short of breath and had a headache.”
On Nov. 25, 2018, The New York Times reported that in order to catch Liu Changming, a fugitive bank official, Beijing is preventing his two children, Victor and Cynthia Liu, who are both U.S. citizens, from leaving China.
In her email to a family associate, Ms. Liu wrote, “The Chinese authorities have been consistent that neither Victor nor I are accused of or suspected of any criminal activity.”
“The reason we are here is exclusively to lure” their father, she wrote.
Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote, “‘Hostage diplomacy’ is repulsive in the international community, and any country that practices it will significantly damage its reputation, international image and credibility as an international partner.”
Professor Donald Clarke of George Washington University Law School pointed out in an op-ed in The Washington Post: “You cannot just go around arresting innocent people and holding them hostage. That is the mark of a thuggish state, not a permanent member of the Security Council. If detaining two Canadians is an acceptable response, how about 20 or 200?”
In the op-ed “China’s Canadian Hostages,” the New York Times Editorial Board asks, “Is the use of pawns (by Beijing) the bad new normal in trade and diplomatic disputes?”
Despite grave concerns and protests from Canada, the United States, and the international community, Beijing isn’t backing down. Both the United States and Canada are reportedly considering the option of issuing a travel warning for individuals considering visiting China.
Some longtime China watchers hold that had Moscow taken so many Western hostages groundlessly, the mainstream media and politicians would have gone bananas. What, one might wonder, makes Beijing so exceptional?
If Western countries are now quietly engaging Beijing to gain the release of their citizens or hostages in this case, from a legal perspective, are they negotiating with a terrorist organization?
Such efforts would appear to differ little from negotiating with terrorists over kidnappings in the Middle East. After all, the Western world is known for its longstanding policy of no negotiation with terrorists for hostages.
Clarke makes an important legal argument: “To call this a hostage-taking and not a regular criminal investigation is a serious charge. Here, it is justified.
“The critical element of a hostage-taking is that the hostage-taker must tell you that it’s a hostage-taking and what his demands are. Otherwise, the whole point of taking hostages is defeated.
“In this case, official and quasi-official Chinese sources have been clear. The Chinese ambassador to Canada has not just admitted it he has also proclaimed it in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, saying that those who object to the Kovrig detention should reflect on Canada’s actions.
“Obviously, if there were no connection, those who object should no more reflect on Canada’s actions than they should reflect on the actions of, say, Saudi Arabia.”
While Meng is given due process in accordance with the law in Canada, foreign hostages in China are not so fortunate, including Kovrig, the former Canadian diplomat who has been denied the right to legal counsel, as well as to meet with his family members.
Above all, Meng is being accused of some serious criminal acts, while the foreign hostages in China are mostly innocent.
A critical question remains: Should the international communities see Beijing’s hostage-taking as the act of a terrorist state?
Over the years, international concern over communist China’s ill-treatment of its own citizens may derive from the universal jurisdiction of human-rights law, as well as from international treaties to which China is a party.
With Beijing no longer content only to use its own dissident citizens for hostage diplomacy, Western democracies are beginning to worry about their citizens being taken hostages by this party state.
Other nations should call hostage diplomacy what it is, and Beijing’s acts of state terrorism should be taken seriously. The international community should be unequivocally united to condemn such lawless behavior, and not let state-sponsored terrorism become normal and rule our lives.
***Peter Zhang focuses his research on political economy in China and East Asia. He is a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason fellow.
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