[Analytics] Backchannels to Beijing close as detentions raise fears among old China hands

Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, says members of the diplomatic community must be wary of travelling to China. Photo: Reuters

Former envoys say they are hesitant to visit China to try to rekindle valuable informal ties if the cost is cold confinement. Kinling Lo specially for the South China Morning Post.

Some of the West’s most experienced “China hands” plan to steer clear of the country as the detention of two Canadians in December raises concerns among former envoys about their safety.

China’s detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in December – following Canada’s arrest of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, Chinese tech giant Huawei’s chief financial officer – has been condemned by diplomats, especially US allies who speak of retaliation by Beijing.

Despite Beijing’s denial that the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor were revenge, a Beijing-based Western diplomat said the detentions worried officials who were now reluctant to return to China and engage in informal diplomacy after postings when sometimes years-long professional relationships were built up with Chinese counterparts.

“I would probably not want to come back to Beijing after my post,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be identified.

Exchanges between Western nations and China suffered after Meng’s arrest at the request of the United States. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission asked state company employees to avoid business trips to the US and its allies, and to take extra care to protect electronic devices if they had to travel.

China also issued a warning against travel in Canada, saying citizens faced a “risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

Damage to formal and informal ties has raised concerns that the already tense relationships between China and Western nations, especially the US, will worsen.

For years, exchanges between businesses and former diplomats were often used as a backchannel to improve relations. With these avenues closed, policymaking that shapes ties between the two sides could become much tougher.

Last week 116 scholars and 27 former diplomats from 19 countries released an open letter calling for the release of the two Canadians.

The letter said the detention of Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, prompted the signatories to “be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts”.

Some Western former diplomats are ready to suspend informal contacts with China.

It is not uncommon for professionals to continue working on China-related affairs in think tanks or private enterprises after their government postings are over. Kovrig became a senior adviser for Northeast Asia for the think tank International Crisis Group after his diplomatic posting.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, told the South China Morning Post that he had cancelled a business trip to Beijing for March.

“The reality is, we could be in for some turbulence in our relationship with China because now the official extradition request [for Meng] has been received and accusations are serious and clear [and] I think the accusations are very serious,” said Saint-Jacques, a signatory to the open letter.

“In my case, because of the work I have done in China, they [the Chinese authorities] know where I stand, so I wouldn’t take any chance.”

The US requested Meng’s extradition from Canada this week after prosecutors announced 23 criminal charges against her and Huawei. These include money laundering, fraud, conspiracy and intellectual property theft.

After the details of the indictment were made clear, China called on the US to stop its “unreasonable crackdown” on Huawei.

Saint-Jacques said he would be watching for when it could be safe to return to China, as he expected the extradition process against Meng to be a very long one, and “the longer the extradition process takes, the more pressure Canada would be under”.

Despite his misgivings, Saint-Jacques drew a distinction between the status of business travellers and tourists visiting China and the possible perils facing former diplomats.

Kovrig and Spavor were being held for allegedly having “endangered China’s national security”, a vague term open to Beijing’s interpretation, Saint-Jacques said.

“As a diplomat, you engage in all kinds of work. In my case, I met with dissidents, made some critical comments on the development of human rights, situations related to religious freedom and minorities,” he said.

“Therefore, it is obvious that you could claim those were national security aspects. If Chinese authorities would like to put pressure on Canada, they could go after other former diplomats.”

He is not alone in his scepticism. Stephen Joske, who was the senior treasury representative at the Australian embassy in Beijing from 2004 to 2007, has decided to avoid China completely.

“I used to travel to China four or five times a year, but from now on I will not be going there at all,” he said. “While the risk of arrest may be small, it is impossible to predict, and the suffering inflicted on Mr Kovrig is likely to be quite severe already.”

China’s arrest of former Chinese diplomat Yang Hengjun, now an Australian citizen, earlier this month has fuelled fears that Beijing’s scope goes beyond North America.

While a political commentator, Yang criticised Beijing for censorship and its interference in other countries’ affairs. He has been held on the mainland under “residential surveillance” on suspicion of espionage since January 19, when he was detained at Guangzhou’s airport while on a family trip.

“Yang was a turning point [for the decision not to go to China at all] as it shows how broad the Chinese clampdown now is,” Joske said.

“It is hard to follow the Chinese economy outside China, so I am still working out the best way to handle the new situation,” he said, adding that his frequent travel to China was for work as an economist and for family reasons.

While no US citizens have been held since the start of the Meng diplomatic row, former US government officials with experience of China said the threat of detentions was not exclusive to Canadians and Australians.

Robert Daly, who served as a US diplomat in Beijing from 1989 to 1991, said he would still travel to China with an “approved invitation and the right kind of visa” as it was essential that Chinese and Americans continued the difficult task of trying to understand each other’s positions, even as relations deteriorate.

“As far as we know, that is the kind of work Michael Kovrig was doing when he was arrested,” said Daly, director of the US-based Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

Daly said he would not extend his advice to others. “While I’d make the trip myself, I wouldn’t want others travelling to China based on my advice,” he said.

“The chance of arbitrary, indefinite detention in China has clearly gone up and, while it may seem alarmist to declare that individuals run the risk of being taken hostage if China disapproves of the actions of their countries, that is the message the Kovrig and Spavor arrests inevitably send.”

Charles Edel, a senior adviser to former US secretary of state John Kerry from 2015 to 2017, said he believed the detentions were likely to have a chilling effect on US institutions interested in China.

He has visited China a few times to attend workshops and conferences after he went back to academia, but also said that in the current environment, he would not be willing to travel there now.

“These [detentions] strike me as counterproductive to Beijing’s aims as they’re far more likely to strengthen ties between the US, Canada and Australia on this matter and solidify the view that [President] Xi Jinping’s China has become dangerous, arbitrary and repressive and that the risks involved with engagement – be they intellectual, economic or cultural – are rising,” said Edel, a visiting scholar at United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

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