Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor, and China’s history of hostage diplomacy

Foreign Affairs

The two Canadians are only the latest victims of a much-maligned diplomatic tactic.

michael kovrig and michael spavor sit in a chinese jail with a thing ray of light beaming into the lonely cell of the chinese jail
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

On June 19, Chinese prosecutors indicted two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on espionage charges. Under the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, these crimes carry hefty minimum sentences, but can also result in life imprisonment or execution.  The two men, both of whom have been in custody since December 2018, are now at the mercy of a Chinese justice system which yields convictions in more than 99 percent of cases.

Although the Chinese government has made no explicit statement of the linkage, the Kovrig and Spavor cases are widely understood to be part of a retaliation campaign against the Canadian government for its ongoing detainment of Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟, a powerful executive at the controversial Chinese telecom company Huawei. Ms. Meng is currently splitting her time between her family’s two Vancouver mansions while an elite team of lawyers mounts her defense against extradition to the United States, where she faces charges of financial fraud and circumventing sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, Kovrig and Spavor await trial in crowded, perpetually illuminated, communal cells, and have been denied consular visits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January.

These indictments are the latest examples of a much-maligned diplomatic tactic the Chinese government deployed in the Maoist period as a result of its international isolation. Today, that tactic is experiencing a renaissance in Xí Jìnpíng 习近平’s China, now fully entrenched in the international system.

Observers in Canada have been quick to denounce China’s “hostage diplomacy,” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowing not to give in to the tactic, which is more commonly associated with rogue states than ascendant global superpowers. During a recent press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, a spokesperson rejected the term as “brimming with malice,” and suggested that Ms. Meng’s treatment in Canada constitutes the true hostage situation. But it’s Kovrig and Spavor who are preparing to navigate the frequently arbitrary and consistently severe contours of the Chinese criminal justice system.

For those who study China’s diplomatic history, the practice of “hostage diplomacy” invokes an earlier chapter in the country’s engagement with the world. During the PRC’s first decade, while unrecognized by many governments and excluded from most international organizations, Beijing frequently resorted to the arbitrary detainment of foreign nationals as a means of extracting concessions.

In late 1952, during the final months of the Korean War, the People’s Liberation Army shot down a number of American planes that had strayed across the Yalu river, capturing 13 U.S. airmen in Chinese territory. These soldiers were detained for almost two years before finally being indicted by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate for espionage in 1954, a charge which held them captive within the Chinese justice system rather than granting them protection under the vast body of international law which applies to prisoners of war.

The general public was invited to attend the mass show trial of the American airmen in Beijing. A packed courthouse cheered for the prosecutor and rained down jeers on the prisoners who sat behind their appointed defense team in prison uniforms, their heads shaved. Their weapons, communications gear, and other equipment that had been recovered from the aircrafts were spread out on a massive table as evidence.

The Chinese lawyers assigned to defend the airmen, one public defender and three law professors from Renmin University, offered little argument on the Americans’ behalf; they were entirely convinced of their own clients’ guilt as foreign spies sent to undermine the peace and security of the People’s Republic. Yet, they continued, the judge should be lenient in his sentencing, taking into account that most of the airmen were relatively young and had received reactionary educations under America’s violent and aggressive governmental clique. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will also have to rely on appointed public defenders, but their trials will be closed and the evidence against them may never be publicly known. As in 1955, the charges seem spurious, but the opacity of the Chinese legal system ensures that foreign observers will never know for sure.

In the months that followed the 1955 show trial, public outrage in the United States reached a fever pitch. A member of Congress publicly called for a nuclear strike on China while Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed bombing Chinese railroads in a meeting of top Eisenhower administration officials.

Eventually, however, it was the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, who traveled to Beijing in 1955 to negotiate with Foreign Minister Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 for the prisoners’ release. Zhou was willing to discuss the release of the prisoners, but only if the Secretary-General, the highest official of global governance and the leader of an organization in which Beijing had no representation, conceded that international law could not supersede Chinese domestic law in this or any other case.

Working from this premise, Zhou agreed that China would release the airmen — out of magnanimity rather than deference to international law — if the United States would allow Chinese students who had been studying abroad at the time of the revolution to return home to their families. Hostage diplomacy not only allowed Zhou to assert legal sovereignty, a long sought-after objective which had eluded successive Chinese regimes for nearly a century, but forced the United States and the international community to negotiate with a government that otherwise went unrecognized.

Indeed, the 15 American airmen suffered relatively short detainments when compared to other pawns of Maoist era hostage diplomacy. A number of Americans captured during the Korean and Vietnam wars were imprisoned for more than a decade before being released as part of the normalization efforts that surrounded Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to meet Mao and Beijing’s reclaiming of the China seat in the United Nations.

The practice of hostage diplomacy waned in the following decades, although scholars debated whether the term might aptly be applied to the strategic release of dissidents such as Wèi Jīngshēng 魏京生 and Wáng Dān 王丹 as part of Sino-American diplomatic initiatives in the 1990s. Still, as China was incorporated into the international system, this extreme negotiating tactic was rarely used. The arbitrary detainment and indictment of foreign nationals represented the last diplomatic resort of a regime which was formally excluded from the official dispute resolution institutions of global governance. As Zhou told Hammarskjold in 1955, China would not be held accountable to an international legal regime under which it could not seek protection. It would not recognize the authority of an international organization which declined to recognize Beijing’s legitimacy and sovereignty.

In 2020, Chinese hostage diplomacy is back in force, a troubling trend which extends far beyond Kovrig and Spavor. Apparently also in response to Meng’s extradition proceedings, the Chinese government sentenced another Canadian citizen to death in 2018 on charges of drug smuggling. In a strikingly similar incident from 2014, the Chinese government detained Kevin and Julia Garratt, a Canadian couple who had lived in China since the 1980s, on suspicion of espionage soon after Canada extradited a Chinese businessman, Su Bin, to the United States. Mr. Garratt was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison, but the couple was able to return to Canada in 2016, months before Su was released from a federal prison.

Beijing’s practice of hostage diplomacy is not limited to Sino-Canadian relations, nor is it solely focused on securing the release of detained Chinese business leaders. In 2018, Chinese police prevented two young American travelers, Victor and Cynthia Liu, from leaving China, while detaining their mother, Sandra Han, in a secret prison. The authorities hoped to pressure Liu Changming, Victor and Cynthia’s father, into leaving the United States and returning to China, where he faced fraud charges. An investigation uncovered nearly two dozen such cases of “exit bans” in 2018 alone. Just this past month, an Australian man was sentenced to death for drug trafficking as part of an increasing escalation of hostilities between Canberra and Beijing.

It goes without saying that Chinese hostage diplomacy in 2020 cannot be understood in the same terms as its precedents in the Maoist period. China now sits at the center of the international order which it once spurned from the outside. The decision to renew the practice in the 21st century must be understood as a flexing of China’s newfound international muscle, the deliberate flouting of legal conventions and diplomatic norms to test the limits of China’s superpower exceptionalism.

Such disregard for international law is not unique to China among global powers — many would accuse the United States of failing to abide by the rules of a system it largely created — but hostage diplomacy is a singularly polarizing form of superpower exceptionalism. The “responsible stakeholder” narrative is largely defunct among those who study China’s place in the global system, but hostage diplomacy, particularly when it casts so wide a net and engages so many foreign adversaries, is more than just irresponsibility. It is the diplomatic recourse of a country which has chosen to forsake cooperation and alliance, a superpower reluctant to surrender the extreme tactics of the outsider even when inside.