Opinion: The risks Americans face in traveling to China
For years, China watchers have warned of Beijing’s increasing use of “hostage diplomacy,” and last month, it was on full display. Two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were detained by Chinese authorities in 2018, shortly after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at America’s behest over alleged violations of US sanctions. As soon as Meng was returned to China in late September, Kovrig and Spavor were released.
Make no mistake: just like their North Korean clients, the Chinese government took hostages to force a favorable political outcome. They have been rewarded for their behavior, and history shows it will only continue. A warning to anyone else traveling to China: You could easily be next.
For any one tourist traveling to China, the risk of being detained is low, statistically. Before the pandemic, nearly three million Americans traveled to China in a given year. Those detained have had business or institutional links there. For instance, Michael Kovrig, released at the resolution of the Meng case, advises an international-conflict nonprofit on the northeast Asia region.
But given the arbitrariness of China’s behavior, it would be unwise to simply ignore the risk.
A few examples may convince you otherwise.
Does this sound familiar? It’s the same playbook Beijing just used.
The cruelty of this conduct cannot be understated. The Chinese government knowingly jails and prosecutes innocent foreign citizens for tangential political purposes.
China refuses to reform its legal system to modern international standards or to allow an independent judiciary. The message from Beijing to foreigners is clear: The law and its supposed protections for the innocent are disposable the moment it becomes advantageous to discard them. In the US, our rule of law system protects the American people from our government. The Chinese system protects the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from the Chinese people, and from the ordinary course of geopolitics, too.
Fortunately, we have tools at our disposal to respond.
First, we can deploy sanctions on Chinese individuals, officials, and judges responsible for any future hostage-taking of US citizens using the recently passed Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. The law should also be broadened to allow the US government to target officials who seize our allies’ citizens. With such a change, the US could have punished China for targeting Canadians.
Second, the West can further discourage travel to China, especially from business executives and others who are at the greatest risk.
Finally, the international business community, which is disproportionately targeted by China’s hostage-taking (as well as China’s theft of intellectual property), should find its voice. Companies should consider reducing corporate travel to China. This would clearly tell Beijing its hostage-taking tactics have consequences.
Today, Meng is being quoted in Chinese media about the “torment” she supposedly endured, wearing an ankle monitor while living comfortably in either of her two mansions as she awaited extradition. We have yet to hear from the Michaels about the treatment they endured at the hands of the Chinese government. If and when they finally do speak, Western travelers to China should listen closely: Those who visit China might suffer a similar fate.