Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still ravaging many countries, vaccines are providing a light at the end of the tunnel. Many international businesses are planning accordingly. Airlines no longer offer bargain-basement rates as business travelers are itching to go wheels-up as soon as possible.
Traveling to China, however, will be a much more complicated decision. Beijing faces a twin threat of concerns for international businesses in the perception that local laws will be arbitrarily enforced against foreign nationals and building political pressure for sponsors to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics. The next few months provide Beijing an opportunity to slowly assuage these fears. Releasing arbitrarily detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will go a long way towards this goal.
Beijing vehemently disputes that it engages in so-called hostage diplomacy. But it would be hard-pressed to dispute that the perception exists. A July 2019 survey of major international companies across several industries showed that half of the respondents felt the risk of travel for business executives to China had increased during the past year. Nearly half of respondents had increased security measures as a result. Additionally, 30 percent of respondents reported knowing someone within their own organization who had been detained in China.
A major factor driving these responses were the December 2018 detentions of Kovrig and Spavor, who were detained just days after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada pursuant to an extradition request issued by the United States. It’s commonly understood that Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Beijing has even acknowledged that resolving Meng’s case may open a path for “both Michaels”.
Governments around the world have long voiced their concerns with the arbitrary and politicized nature of the Kovrig and Spavor cases. Recently, the United States joined Canada, Australia and other countries by elevating their travel advisory warnings for China, citing an assessment that local laws are arbitrarily enforced. The two cases played an important role in developing this assessment.
Now, more than 900 days later, little has changed and the perceptions have likely hardened. Friends and colleagues of mine understand that though the risks of being detained in China are small, the stakes are enormous. As long as this perception exists, many travelers will be reluctant to risk years of their lives in detention to pitch a service or close a deal. Especially after this pandemic, we’ve all reordered our priorities.
The 2022 Olympics add another complication. Facing the reality of today’s activist consumer culture, businesses will be under enormous pressure to boycott the Olympics over a number of allegations of serious human rights abuses. Beijing is sensitive to this dynamic, already enlisting its diplomats to engage sponsors to preempt any such embarrassing episodes. Again, Beijing may dispute the allegations lodged against it, but it can’t deny the perception.
The experiences of previous Olympic boycotts suggest that political leaders will be reluctant to force participants to boycott the Olympics. It will, however, be much easier for them to scapegoat businesses into sending a message by proxy. Just a few weeks ago, a U.S. congressional leader blasted corporate sponsors of the games who “look the other way on China’s abuses out of concern for their bottom line.”
To silence critics, sponsors will need to point to tangible proof of Beijing’s positive trajectory on these issues. Absent some “good” news, sponsors will be left to fend for themselves under a politically difficult spotlight. Releasing Kovrig and Spavor is a relatively low-stakes but high-profile investment in that direction. Doing so will also help give businesses executives the confidence to safely travel to the games.
Most of all, it is the exceedingly right thing to do.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of Trustees of International Crisis Group, on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.