Taking hostages is a time-honoured way of resolving disputes for the Chinese Communist Party regime, which fears the rule of law and an independent judiciary.
The CCP has taken this form of dispute resolution to a highly sophisticated and nuanced level which even foreigners who do believe in the rule of law and an independent judiciary can understand.
There is, for example, a profound difference in the implications of the kidnapping and holding hostage of Simon Cheng as he returned from Shenzhen to Hong Kong on August 8, and the kidnapping and holding hostage of the two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They were both spirited away at the beginning of December last year.
And in a nation without the rule of law, the use of kidnapping and hostage taking as a method of conflict resolution extends well beyond the CCP. At any one time there are dozens if not scores of foreigners being detained in China because their local business partners claim illegality and have used influence with the local police and courts to make it stick.
The detained foreigners are usually ethnic Chinese who have emigrated to Australia, Canada, the United States, or elsewhere, and whose facility in China is seen as an asset to their companies.
Usually also, these emigrants are either foolish enough to use their old People’s Republic of China nationality documents to travel into China, or they have not taken the precaution of renouncing their Chinese citizenship. In either case the result is that PRC officials insist the kidnappings are an entirely internal matter, and they refuse access to consular officials from the hostage’s new home.
Unlike the more common business hostage-taking, the detention two weeks ago of Simon Cheng, a locally engaged employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, as he returned to the territory after a day’s business over the border in Shenzen, was clearly a political kidnapping.
Cheng’s detention came after the United Kingdom government in London had expressed concerns about the violent police reaction to peaceful pro-reform demonstrations in Hong Kong, and a call for Beijing to stick to its promises made before the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
In the last few days Beijing’s international English language mouthpiece, Global Times, has reported that Cheng was detained “for soliciting prostitutes” during his one-day visit to Shenzhen on August 8.
There are several reasons to think this story is highly unlikely. Although it is true that prostitution is rife in Shenzhen and it is near impossible for any businessman to spend any time in the city without being propositioned, Cheng had a full agenda of business meetings. His opportunities for an encounter, even if he’d wanted one, are not immediately obvious.
More than that, most of the prostitutes in Shenzhen are managed by the local police, to whom the women pay protection money of one sort or another. If the police had wanted to pick Cheng up for consorting with prostitutes they didn’t have to wait until he was about to re-enter Hong Kong.
Yet he messaged his girlfriend, Annie Li, from the high-speed train saying he was on his way home. This is interesting because the only Chinese immigration checkpoint on this line is in West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong.
This suggests that Cheng was in fact detained in Hong Kong and then whisked back across the border.
In the context of the Hong Kong demonstrations against attempts by the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam to pass a bill enabling easy extradition of alleged criminals to China, there is a strong message here. With or without an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, Beijing is going to grab people it wants to detain.
Canada has been confronting a similar message since last December when diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained.
They were picked up a few days after the December 1 detention at Vancouver’s international airport of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies and the daughter of the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei. Meng was detained on an extradition request by the United States Department of Justice, which alleges she lied to international banks in the process of trying to circumvent Washington’s sanctions against Iran.
Protecting their red princess
The kidnapping of the two Michaels is a lesson in how passionate the CCP is in protecting its red princes and princesses.
Not only have the two Michaels been held for nine months, and allowed only one visit a month by Canadian consular officials, they are also being tortured. As a result of those infrequent visits it is known that the two Michaels are being tortured by sleep deprivation and are being subjected to hours of interrogation every day. Both have now been charged with espionage and endangering the security of the People’s Republic of China.
Princess Meng, in contrast is only under nighttime house arrest at one of her several Vancouver mansions. She seems to spend most days shopping. Her case is running the course of Canada’s independent judicial system, and she has a team of crack lawyers arguing her plea for the extradition to be rejected. As things stand, the case will probably be decided early next year.
However, Donald Trump, who has as little respect for the rule of law as does the CCP, has mused about dropping the charges against Meng as part of the resolution of his trade war with Beijing.
The Canadian government has been subjected to considerable pressure to release Meng from the CCP’s agents of influence in Canadian political and business circles. Beijing’s agents have included Ottawa’s former ambassador to the PRC, John McCallum, and even former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
But to its credit the government of Justin Trudeau has stood firm and refused to interfere in the judicial process.
However, whatever happens to Meng, the fate of the two Michaels is unlikely to be as predictable or pleasant, even if she is sent to the US.
Televised confessions next?
If past actions of the CCP are any guide, the purpose of torturing the two Michaels is to prepare them for staged, televised confessions that they endangered the security of the PRC. They will then be subjected to a choreographed courtroom drama where the outcome, the conviction and the sentencing are already determined.
They will then be locked away until some CCP leader thinks that Ottawa has shown enough contrition and subservience to Beijing for them to be released. Or, as in the case of Australian businessman James Peng, a Beijing leader wishes to demonstrate his merciful nature.
Peng was kidnapped by CCP agents from Macau, then still Portuguese territory, in 1993 after falling out with his business partner, another Red Princess, Ping Deng, the niece of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
Peng was sentenced to 18 years in prison for “misappropriation,” but was released as an act of generosity in 1999 when then CCP leader Jiang Zemin visited Australia.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Ottawa at the end of this week. One of the matters pressed on him by Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, was help in pushing Beijing to release the two Michaels.
It would be splendid if that produced results, but given the evident mental instability of the Trump regime, it is unlikely.
Anger in Canada
In the meantime, the kidnapping of the two Michaels is the cause of widespread public anger in Canada. This is exacerbated by events in Hong Kong, where there are usually about 300,000 Canadian citizens living and working. And in Canada there is a large and strong contingent of supporters of Hong Kong democracy among the 1.5 million Canadians of ethnic Chinese heritage.
Canadian business people with long histories of partnerships in China are being cautious and refusing to go there for fear of being taken hostage.
Many senior Canadian officials, especially those with any level of security clearance, have been instructed not to go to China, or even Hong Kong.
The situation is forcing Canadian political leaders of all parties to realise that their future policy towards China can never be as close as it was in the past. It will have to be based on a minimalist view of the benefits of the bilateral relationship.
And Canadian leaders are looking to enhance relationships with other Asian nations with which Canada does share political, civil, legal, international and security values, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and, potentially, others.
So at some point, the CCP will have to judge whether the excessive defence of one Red Princess is worth the fallout. But for the moment nothing will change because the CCP knows acceptance of the rule of law would be the end of the one-party state.
Late note: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States was working to secure the release of two Canadians held by China.
Pompeo described the detention of Kovrig and Spavor as “arbitrary and unacceptable” after he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Canadian officials.
“Please note that our team is focused on helping those two Canadians be released,” Pompeo told Trudeau. “We’re working on it diligently. It’s wrong that they are being held.”
With reporting by AFP