Is China Detaining Foreign Nationals to Gain Leverage Against the West?

Is China Detaining Foreign Nationals to Gain Leverage Against the West?
Chinese policemen patrol outside the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, Dec. 12, 2018 (AP photo by Andy Wong).

On Monday, China accused Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat detained in December, of espionage, though authorities stopped short of announcing formal charges. Kovrig was taken into custody in the aftermath of Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities. Along with the detention of another Canadian national, the businessman Michael Spavor, Kovrig’s arrest was widely seen as a tit-for-tat move by China to gain leverage against Canada as the hearing over Meng’s extradition to the U.S. proceeds. In an email interview, Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, explains recent high-profile cases of China detaining foreign nationals, as well as Chinese expatriates and dual citizens, and contrasts China’s treatment of detained foreign nationals with the treatment of Chinese nationals, such as Meng, detained by Western governments.

World Politics Review: How long has the Chinese government been using the detention of foreign citizens as a means to apply political pressure? What is the scale of this practice, and how effective is it?

Sophie Richardson: It’s important to start with three caveats. First, the Chinese government’s treatment of its own citizens is generally far harsher than its treatment of foreigners, so we should not minimize the impact of political persecution through arbitrary detention of citizens in China. Second, the Chinese government often does not disclose a range of information about prosecutions—who is being prosecuted, on what charges and where, for instance. That leaves us without a full data set from which to draw conclusions or even accurately attribute the causes of a particular foreigner’s detention. Sometimes these detentions may be due to some other reason, like a local official having been irked by the collapse of a business deal, rather than being a tool of political pressure. Third, the right to a fair trial remains highly elusive for virtually anyone in China. Human Rights Watch continues to document arbitrary detention, lack of access to family or counsel of choice, prolonged pretrial detention, torture and ill-treatment in detention, lack of an independent judiciary, and woefully politicized verdicts.

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