Detentions show the length China will go in fight with the West

Detentions show the length China will go in fight with the West
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The spillover of U.S.-China tensions is increasing the risk of doing business in China, and there is no reason to think it will end.

On Jan. 14, a Chinese court sentenced Canadian citizen Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death for drug smuggling after an unusual retrial, overturning his supposedly lenient 15-year prison sentence. In light of recent events, the re-sentencing appears politically motivated. 

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Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained on state security grounds in December. In a fiery op-ed, China's ambassador to Canada baldly stated that the detentions of Kovrig and Spavor were "self-defense" from Canadian bullying, all but admitting the detentions were in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. 

The cases show the lengths Beijing will go to avoid recalibrating its approach to economic competition. Moreover, the power dynamics at play inside China suggest the dangers for foreign visitors and businesspeople are increasing regardless of Washington's actions. 

Heightened travel warnings issued by Global Affairs Canada and the U.S. State Department on China do not do justice to the problem. U.S. policy shows no signs of changing, and the trend lines point to comprehensive pressure being applied to China.

Beijing's actions directly target the United States' relationship with its allies. It further threatens to divide those with a shared interest in Chinese economic behavior. 

China increasingly finds itself alone in the world or with paid escorts in international fora. The United States, despite President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE's damaging attitude toward allies, maintains deep relationships across the globe. Beijing is demonstrating that cooperation with the United States will result in punishment from which Washington cannot shield friendly nations. 

China's actions also threaten the accountability of democratic societies to the rule of law. Ottawa arrested Meng Wanzhou to be held pending extradition to the United States on fraud charges linked to Iran sanctions violations. The arrest was in line with Canada's judicial procedure and extradition treaty with the United States. 

Beijing is forcing governments into an ethical dilemma. It pits the safety of one's citizens against the nation’s adherence to the rule of law and international agreements. 

Beijing will continue to attempt to drive wedges between the U.S. and less internationally powerful governments. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Southeast Asian countries years ago, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."  

The tactic is evident in the reaction to the arrest of a Chinese citizen and Huawei employee and a former local employee of the Polish domestic counterintelligence agency ABW on espionage charges.

The rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propagandists has taken the clear stance that Poland is a small and insignificant country. Poland, these propagandists have claimed, has a choice between the United States and China.

The demand for countries to make a choice is part of a larger trend where China under President Xi Jinping has more visibly redoubled the party’s long-standing efforts to transform global governance to accommodate its authoritarianism.  

For China to pull back, the CCP would at a minimum have to rethink national industrial policies and unravel the party’s assertion of its power. The last five years of Xi Jinping’s leadership, however, has seen the opposite.

Rather than move toward more market-based reforms promised in the Third Plenum report of 2013, the party has expanded its reach by establishing party committees in private enterprises, joint ventures with foreign partners and now even in Hong Kong.  

These tensions will not go away anytime soon. Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new “China Initiative” to counter what Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski called “the threat of malign Chinese economic aggression.”

The initiative puts more resources into investigating and prosecuting cases and explicitly spreads responsibility for China work beyond the National Security Division. The U.S. pursuit of China’s technology thieves and spies already has involved Belgium and Canada.  

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Those businesses and individuals who think they may be immune should at least reassess their risk. Key legislation the party directly links to state security, which foreigners should be aware of, are the Foreign NGO Management Law, the State Security Law, the Cyber Security Law, Counter Espionage Law, Anti-Terrorism Law and National Intelligence Law.

It is the same grouping of legislation ostensibly being used against Kovrig and Spavor, if they are ever formally charged. Both have been accused of “suspicion of engaging in activities that harm China’s state security."

Global Times Editor Hu Xijin said in a video posted to the Global Times website that China’s revenge for Canada extraditing Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to the United States “would be far worse than detaining a Canadian."

Beijing has shown what it is willing to do in the Spavor, Kovrig and Schellenberg cases. For individuals, detention without charge, forced confessions to false allegations, prison sentences and even death are on the table. It is important to take the risk seriously, even if for some mitigation means pulling out of China completely.  

Samantha Hoffman is a nonresident Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Peter Mattis is a research fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a former CIA analyst.