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China's embrace of hostage diplomacy is no idle threat

The Chinese government is threatening to detain foreign citizens unless their home governments do what Beijing demands. In some cases, China has already made good on those threats.

The big picture: This marks a potential evolution of China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" to outright rogue state behavior, putting it in the company of countries like North Korea and Iran, which have also engaged in hostage diplomacy.

Driving the news: Over the summer, Chinese officials told the Trump administration they may detain Americans in China if the Department of Justice prosecutes scholars with ties to China's military, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

  • The threats began after the FBI interrogated a visiting Chinese military researcher, who then spent weeks sheltering in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, a story first reported by Axios.

It's no idle threat. In 2018, China detained two Canadian citizens, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, just days after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to comply with a U.S. extradition request.

  • The two men have since been charged with espionage-related crimes and held without consular or lawyer visits.
  • Those arrests cast a chill over Canadian citizens living in China as the relationship between China and Canada swiftly deteriorated.

Australia, too, has felt pressure. Earlier this year, Australia led the effort to launch a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, drawing intense criticism from China, which then imposed trade sanctions on Australia.

  • Then, in early September, Australian diplomats assisted two Australian journalists in leaving China amid concerns Chinese authorities might detain them.

The Chinese government has also detained or even abducted from abroad foreign nationals of Chinese origin, such as the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, though Gui's case did not seem intended to pressure the Swedish government.

What the U.S. is saying: “If China wants to be seen as one of the world’s leading nations, it should respect the rule of law and stop taking hostages," John Demers, head of the national security division at the Department of Justice, told the Wall Street Journal.

What China is saying: "By alleging that foreign nationals are arbitrarily detained in China, the United States is acting as the guilty party blaming the innocent," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in an Oct. 19 press briefing.

The bottom line: China's actions threaten the image it has sought to project to the rest of the world, as a responsible rising power and a less-coercive alternative to the West.

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