Empty Threats?

Despite China’s track record of arbitrarily detaining foreign citizens, China has tended to moderate its response to U.S. policies adverse to China. For example, rather than take more aggressive steps like arresting U.S. citizens, China has demonstrated an aversion to provoking confrontation by limiting itself to issuing travel restrictions and other, less pointed measures against the United States. Measures such as travel restrictions are largely symbolic since they tend to target hard-line China critics who were unlikely to go to China in the first place, and in any case, were unable to go there due to pandemic travel restrictions. With an estimated 70,000 American expatriates living in China, Chinese authorities have had ample opportunity to arrest U.S. citizens had they wanted to do so.

  • December 2019 – China responded to the U.S. passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by suspending stopover privileges for visiting U.S. military craft and sanctioning several U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy.
  • December 2020 – China announced restrictions on U.S. officials’ travel to Hong Kong and Macao in response to U.S. sanctions on Hong Kong officials for their role in enacting the new National Security Law.
  • 20, 2021 – China announced travel restrictions on 30 former Trump administration officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser Robert O’Brien, within minutes of former President Donald Trump’s having left office.
  • March 2021 – China announced travel restrictions on U.S. and Canadian officials and human rights advocates over criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

But perhaps the most telling sign of moderation was China’s decision not to conduct reciprocal arrests of U.S. nationals over the summer of 2020 following the U.S. arrest of four Chinese academics. In July 2020, the FBI arrested and charged four Chinese academics with visa fraud for lying about their connections to the People’s Liberation Army. Indictments later accused them of being tasked with collecting intelligence from U.S. research institutions, including universities. One of the suspects evaded arrest for a month by seeking refuge in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, illustrating how sensitive the issue was to the larger U.S.-China diplomatic relationship. About the same time, the United States ordered the Chinese Consulate in Houston to close over accusations that diplomats there supported espionage operations.

These arrests, charges and consulate closures sparked a flurry of reciprocal diplomatic actions and verbal threats between China, the United States and U.S. allies. The passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law about the same time amplified the diplomatic row and private concerns over the safety of traveling to China.

  • In July 2020, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for China and Hong Kong citing the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
  • That same month, Australia warned its citizens of an increased threat of detention in Hong Kong, citing the new National Security Law. Chinese authorities detained Australian citizen Cheng Lei shortly thereafter; two other Australian journalists evaded an exit ban authorities had put on them in connection with a national security investigation.
  • A Wall Street Journal article published in October 2020 cited unnamed sources as claiming that Chinese government officials were warning U.S. officials that they would detain U.S. citizens in retaliation for the detention of Chinese academics in July. Chinese officials allegedly specifically threatened to detain a U.S. citizen if U.S. officials did not let the Chinese academic at the San Francisco consulate return to China.
  • Chinese officials also allegedly threatened that “Americans in China might find themselves in violation of Chinese law” unless the United States dropped charges against the three Chinese academics, according to the Wall Street Journal article.
  • China’s ambassador to Canada issued a veiled threat against Canadian citizens in Hong Kong while urging Canada to stop granting asylum to Hong Kong democracy activists, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Despite these threats, no indications have emerged of Chinese detentions of American or Canadian citizens since summer 2020. The Chinese academic who sought refuge in the Chinese consulate eventually surrendered to U.S. law enforcement; she is scheduled to stand trial in July. The status of the other three academics is unclear, but apparently, they are awaiting trial. Despite the threats outlined above, these developments occurred without the detention of a U.S. citizen as China had threatened. This does not necessarily rule out the possibility that China could detain a U.S. citizen in the future, but it does suggest some reluctance on Beijing’s part to engage in hostage diplomacy — at least with the United States.

There is no clear explanation for Beijing’s hesitance to use more aggressive tactics against U.S. citizens. Possible reasons range from geopolitical to business interests: China is seeking to navigate its relationship with the United States, its main rival on the world stage, cautiously to avoid an all-out confrontation. The detention of U.S. citizens would risk that confrontation and turn U.S. public opinion firmly against Beijing. China is also seeking to ensure it maintains a healthy economic relationship with U.S. companies; the high-profile arbitrary detention of a U.S. executive or other business traveler would jeopardize that relationship. Its thinking regarding arbitrary detentions, however, could change as the larger U.S.-China relationship changes should Beijing become willing to sacrifice economic ties in pursuit of a greater strategic interest.

Staying vs. Going

Previous examples of arbitrary detentions and rationales for hostage diplomacy will help assess who is at the greatest risk of detention going forward, informing the decision of whether foreigners should resume traveling to China once pandemic-related restrictions end.

  • Anyone engaging in potentially politically sensitive activities is at higher risk of arbitrary detention. Given the Communist Party of China’s preference for top-down control, the range of activities that could be considered politically sensitive is broad. Examples above range from academic to humanitarian work. Academics focusing on more controversial topics such as the history of the Chinese Nationalist Party (which links directly to the present-day conflict over Taiwan) are more likely to face issues than those focusing on nonpolitical topics. Humanitarian work, especially in sensitive locations such as along the North Korean border, Xinjiang or Tibet is likely to increase the threat of detention. Anyone promoting democracy, greater civil liberties or engaging in religious activities is also more likely to be detained.
  • Journalism is also a sensitive area and has frequently led to trouble for foreign reporters, even those properly accredited. China appears to be addressing its sensitivity toward foreign journalists by not allowing them to come into the country in the first place, but anyone engaging in anything that could be construed as reporting on local events will face heightened scrutiny from local authorities.
  • Dual Chinese citizens or foreign nationals of Chinese descent appear more likely to face arbitrary detention than those without any legal connection to China. Even individuals with no formal ties to China but who have family there could be subject to increased pressure from local authorities. Travelers of Chinese descent should proceed with caution and expect different treatment from fellow travelers not of Chinese descent.
  • So far, China has largely avoided arbitrarily detaining business executives or other individuals who are key to foreign investment in China. China still needs foreign investment and, more important, access to foreign markets and technology to meet its economic and political goals, and it cannot afford to alienate the foreign companies and employees who contribute to that. There are certainly examples of businessmen, such as Kai Li, being arbitrarily detained in China, but he was in business for himself and was not associated with a larger company. Executives and employees with major Western companies that are working closely with Chinese partners are far less likely to face extended arbitrary detention. These are exactly the types of people China is targeting for industrial espionage, however, so they should still expect extra scrutiny and surveillance. Companies operating in less critical sectors such as travel and hospitality enjoy less strategic economic cover.

While companies should be more confident in sending their personnel on official business travel to China based on the precedent that China has avoided arbitrarily detaining employees in the past, changing conditions can alter the threat dramatically very quickly. Anticipating political and diplomatic standoffs is key to judging when may be a more sensitive time to plan a visit to China. For example, Tang Juan, the Chinese academic arrested after seeking refuge in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco in 2020, is scheduled to go to trial in California in July 2021. That trial is likely to elevate threats of China detaining U.S. citizens, especially if the trial results in a guilty verdict. July 2021 is also a very sensitive time for China domestically, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, an occasion that the Party does not want marred by negative news of its citizens and interests abroad. Another upcoming trial to watch is that of Meng Wanzhou in Canada. Her legal team successfully argued to push back her extradition hearing to August 2021. While further delays are possible, a decision to extradite her to the United States to stand trial would be another particularly risky moment.

Other Pressure Tactics

Beyond arbitrary detention and hostage diplomacy, China practices other tactics to signal its displeasure toward foreign policies or actions. While these practices may not be as disruptive toward business operations, they are more likely to implicate large companies and their staff.

  • Exit Bans: Immigration officials can prevent persons of interest from leaving the country without actually detaining or charging them. A recent amendment to Hong Kong’s immigration laws appears to make exit bans easier for authorities. Chinese authorities’ attempt to apply an exit ban to two Australian journalists in September 2020 highlights the tactics’ value for exerting pressure on key individuals.
  • Visa/Credential Revocations: In addition to China’s travel sanctions against high-profile foreign critics over the past six months, Chinese authorities also refused to credential five veteran journalists from major U.S. news outlets in September 2020. Authorities can target individuals who they deem a threat without attracting the negative attention of arbitrarily detaining them by simply barring their entry.
  • Foreign Agent Designation: Similarly, but more substantially, China could target entire foreign organizations operating there by designating them as “foreign agents” similar to U.S. policies that targeted Chinese media organizations operating in the United States in 2020. So far, China has not used this tactic.
  • Cyberattacks and Industrial Espionage: China has long engaged in cyber activity both for purposes of disruption and to gather intelligence while maintaining plausible deniability and avoiding the negative publicity that comes with arbitrary detention. Private companies and government agencies will continue to be common Chinese targets.
  • Disruptions to Market Access: China has frequently used local market access as a tool to threaten foreign countries and companies into alignment with Beijing’s policies. The Xinjiang cotton issue is the most recent example, but China has also used the tactic against the NBA and international airline companies.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the opportunity for an inflection point when it comes to foreign travel to China. While foreigners (mostly Westerners) may have had concerns about traveling to China before the pandemic, they largely accepted the incremental risks due to the importance of doing business there. Once China opens back up for international travel, however, companies and individuals will have to make a conscious decision on when is the right time to go back — and whether they are willing to accept the small but serious threat of arbitrary detention due to political motivations out of their control.

Source: by Ben West | May 18, 2021