China Denies Report It May Detain Americans, Says U.S. Mistreats Its Scholars

Earlier this week, representatives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied claims that China will detain American scholars, while also reinforcing their belief that it is actually the U.S. that is mistreating Chinese scholars. These statements are a continuation of events surrounding citizens abroad that dates back to earlier in 2020 when the U.S. detained several Chinese scientists. These scientists were visiting American universities to conduct research when it was discovered that they had not properly disclosed their affiliation with the People’s Liberation Army in China. Since their detainment, China has not made public statements but has allegedly gone through embassies and U.S. representatives to make clear its message: the U.S. should cease its prosecution of the military-associated scholars, or American scholars in China might find themselves in legal predicaments.  

Although he declined to comment on the specific issue at hand, the head of the Justice Department, John Demers, told the Wall Street Journal, “We are aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian and other individuals without legal basis to retaliate against lawful prosecutions and exert pressure on their governments, with a callous disregard for the individuals involved.” Both the Foreign Ministry in China, and the embassy in Washington denied to comment on the statement.

It is true, that China engages in what is colloquially referred to as ‘hostage diplomacy’, a term Beijing has expressed dislike for. An example of this occurred earlier this year, when in response to Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO, China indicted two Canadian students on charges of espionage and denied them judicial rights. Though China denies this was done in retaliation, the timing is suspect, and their recent comments in response to the U.S. prosecution of the visiting scientists once again raises suspicions and concerns.

China’s actions, retaliatory or not, ultimately serve to further strain the already tense relationships it holds with key countries such as the U.S. and Canada. If it wants to be seen as a serious and credible world power, it needs to start utilizing appropriate diplomatic methods rather than using retaliatory tactics. Hostage diplomacy is a tactic used in countries such as Iran and North Korea; China should seek to distance itself from this kind of negative association and should cease behavior that resembles that of some of the most repressed countries. There are a number of other measures that display a concern and awareness for the rights of one’s citizens and China could have better utilized its embassies in the negotiation and mediation process for its citizens abroad.

While involved states such as the U.S. or Canada have been correct in staying away from even the mention of an intervention or tactics that would escalate the issue, they can be subject to criticism for a rather hands-off approach towards China’s methods. Time has shown that China will almost predictably take on a retaliatory approach, and yet they have not received formal condemnation, and diplomatic efforts such as negotiations or sanctions have not been effectively or publicly undertaken. Rather, these feuds are often played out behind closed doors and away from the public eye which leaves the public half-informed and with wavering perceptions about the involved countries. On the one hand, this may feed into China’s impression that it can carry on doing this since it has yet to grossly backfire. The U.S. on the other hand, calls out China for not advocating for the individual, while not publicly doing so for their own citizens. This is not to say that the U.S. is not interested in the safety and rights of its citizens abroad, it is only to say that when this is only done behind closed doors, the public perception is not one of confidence.

Should China intend to make good on these allegations and begin arbitrarily targeting U.S. citizens abroad, the U.S. may have to take a stronger position to drive home the point that its citizens are not to be used as pawns. Hopefully, China will instead turn to more effective and peaceful diplomatic measures before it comes to this.