The detention of Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei has highlighted the risk to foreign nationals from so-called “hostage diplomacy” and Beijing’s attitude towards dual nationals of Chinese descent, observers have warned.
Cheng, who worked as a TV anchor for Chinese state media, has been held for more than a month and is accused of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security”, according to the country’s foreign ministry.
She joins dissident Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun who was charged with espionage in March after more than a year in custody – an indictment that prompted an official protest from Australia. Yang’s wife, an Australian permanent resident, has been barred from leaving China.
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China does not allow dual citizenship and the Australian government has warned its nationals of Chinese origin that the authorities in Beijing may refuse to recognise their new nationality and deny access to consular services.
Grant Wyeth, a researcher at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, said the two countries had different attitudes towards citizenship.
“The CCP sees itself as being the sole voice for all ethnic Chinese. Because of this the party tends not to respect the citizenship of ethnic Chinese, believing that ethnicity takes precedence over nationality,” he said.
China is not the only country to make use of so-called hostage diplomacy but it has been thrown into the spotlight as Cheng’s detention coincided with a sharp deterioration in relations with Australia.
Beijing has previously detained the nationals of other countries with which it has had disputes, including two Canadians after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
China uses detention as part of its diplomatic strategy because it recognises that Western nations with respect for the rule of law cannot reciprocate by arbitrarily detaining innocent Chinese citizens, said Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank in Ottawa.
“It serves to emphasise to nations like Australia and Canada how powerless they are in the face of China’s asymmetrical power relations, so compliance to China’s demands is inevitable for them,” said the former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
Cheng, 45, a bilingual journalist who worked as an anchor for state-run broadcaster China Global Television Network, had one video conversation with Australian officials in late August from the detention centre where she is being held. The Australian authorities did not provide further information, citing privacy rules.
On September 8, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry said: “Her case is still under investigation and in legal process, and her legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed.” The ministry denied that the country was engaging in hostage diplomacy.
However, the Australian authorities have become alarmed enough to issue a warning to its more than 1.2 million residents of Chinese descent. About 41 per cent of them were born in China, according to the 2016 Australian census.
The Australian government is aware of the unique threats that Chinese-Australians face
“If you’re a former Chinese citizen, authorities may treat you as a citizen and refuse access to Australian consular services,” the advisory said.
“The Chinese government doesn’t recognise dual nationality. It won’t let us provide consular help to Chinese-Australian dual nationals who travel on their Chinese passport … or any non-Australian foreign passport,” it added.
But Wyeth said Beijing has shown that travelling on an Australian passport does not protect Chinese-Australians.
“[The specific travel advisory] is an indication that the Australian government is aware of the unique threats that Chinese-Australians face due to the Chinese Communist Party’s narrow conception of their status as Chinese first, Australian second, or the blurred lines the CCP has created to suit its own purposes.”
China-Australia relations took a downturn in April when Australia pushed for an independent review of the origins and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was first detected in China late last year.
Beijing then imposed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley imports, banned beef imports from four firms, and started an investigation into Australian wines allegedly being sold in China below fair market prices.
Cheng’s detention also came as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report on September 1, saying China is increasingly using coercive diplomacy to force changes in behaviour.
The report cited 152 cases involving 27 countries and the European Union that included restrictions on trade, investment, tourism and official travel from 2018.
“There does seem to be increasing trend in the PRC’s use of coercive diplomacy, including the use of arbitrary detention for what appears to be a means for political ends,” said Bec Strating, an Asian security specialist at La Trobe University in Australia.
The purpose of hostage diplomacy is to the detainees as leverage in the pursuit of particular political goals, said Strating, citing the case of the two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
They were charged with espionage after Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, in response to an extradition request by the United States. She is under house arrest in Vancouver pending the result of her case.
“The Canadian case seems – at least on the surface, and according to publicly available knowledge – to have a transactional dimension: Canada releases Meng, China will talk about the Canadians,” said Strating.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said that Canada was playing “the role of an accomplice” to the US in detaining Meng and has called for her immediate release.
Using detention as an instrument of foreign policy is a cruel and counterproductive tactic that damages Beijing’s global reputation and standing, although China is not the only country to use it, said Paul Evans, a professor at the school of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
“The detention of Canada’s two Michaels is a case in point. It has not been effective in moving Ottawa to release Madam Meng Wanzhou,” said Evans.
“And with Canadian lives on the line it has soured public opinion in ways that will harm bilateral relations for the foreseeable future.”
This article Detained Australian journalist’s case shines fresh spotlight on China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ first appeared on South China Morning Post