China: “hostage diplomacy” worries business circles

BEIJING, China | The simultaneous release of Huawei’s chief financial officer by Canada and two Canadians by Beijing has raised concern in foreign affairs circles in China, with some believing that “hostage diplomacy” has worked.

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After spending three years in Canada pending extradition to the United States, which suspects her of bank fraud, Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecoms giant, returned to her country on Saturday as a heroine.

Simultaneously, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, arrested in China a few days after Ms. Meng, returned to Canada after experiencing Chinese prisons on charges of espionage. The Beijing media did not say much about their arrest or release.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on Saturday in Calgary.

Courtesy photo

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on Saturday in Calgary.

The Chinese regime ensures that the two cases have no link between them, but the simultaneity of the releases shows that “the diplomacy of the hostages worked to a certain extent”, notes the sinologist Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of the Baptist University. from Hong Kong.

In this context, some foreign companies are worried about seeing their expatriate staff in turn serve as bargaining chips in diplomatic disputes.

“It seems more and more that companies are the victims of politics,” worries Steven Lynch, director of the British Chamber of Commerce in China.

Some bosses have put in place contingency plans in the event of the detention of their staff, according to the head of a Canadian company in Shanghai.

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“There is a lot of concern to see anyone being arrested in the middle of the street overnight,” he testifies.

Decreasing workforce

Expatriate numbers have already fallen significantly in China due to the Covid-19 epidemic and entry restrictions put in place by Beijing.

With political pressure, some Canadian companies decided the risks were too high for them and began to scale down their operations in the world’s second-largest economy.

“Every foreigner in China must know that his hours are counted in the country,” said a Canadian business leader.

In addition to the case of the “two Michael”, several foreigners employed in China have been arrested in recent years, including a French pastry chef implicated and convicted in a case of outdated flour. He was able to return to France at the end of 2019.

An Irish businessman has been in detention since 2019 after his employer was embroiled in a legal dispute. And an Australian reporter for the Chinese channel CGTN was arrested last year when relations between Beijing and Canberra were at an all-time low.

The hypothesis of “hostage diplomacy” has increased with the return to the United States on Sunday of two young Americans detained in China since 2018, while their father is being prosecuted by Beijing for “economic crimes”.

Besides the business community, Western diplomats worry about having to return to China without full diplomatic immunity.

“The risk of getting caught up in a similar dispute is too high,” a diplomat told AFP.

In a general context of deteriorating relations between China and the West, certain multinationals feel more and more in Beijing’s sights.

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This is the case of big brands who have had to apologize in recent months after being accused of anti-Chinese bias on sensitive issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the North. West Chinese.

“Companies are trying more than ever to avoid politics and not to cross red lines, wherever they are,” admits a member of a European chamber of commerce in Hong Kong.

And the international condemnation of “hostage diplomacy” will not have a great impact on the communist regime. “I think that China could be tempted to resort to it again”, estimates Jean-Pierre Cabestan, even if it “contributed to deteriorate the image of China in the world”.