Discussions of what China’s rise will mean for the world often take on an abstract, impersonal quality. We use terms like “international order,” “geopolitical competition” and “balance of power.” Yet the case of Michael Kovrig, the Canadian ex-diplomat who has been unjustly detained in China for nearly two months, reminds us that the rise of a brash authoritarian power comes with profoundly human consequences.
No less, this episode shows how Xi Jinping’s China risks alienating those foreign observers who have worked hardest to build connections and understanding between Beijing and the outside world.
Kovrig certainly fits this description. He is fluent in Mandarin and served at posts in Hong Kong and Beijing. Since 2016, he has been covering China for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernment organization with a strong reputation for objectivity and quality. Kovrig’s work for ICG has covered an array of issues: China’s role in US-North Korea diplomacy, its involvement in the conflict in South Sudan, and its growing global military footprint.
The official story about Kovrig’s detention in early December is that his work ran afoul of China’s laws on NGOs, which impose strict restrictions and reporting requirements on foreign institutions operating in that country. But it’s hard to see his arrest as anything other than geopolitical blackmail by the Chinese government.
The timing of Kovrig’s detention and the commentary of quasi-official mouthpieces such as the Global Times make clear that he was picked up as revenge for the Canadian government’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei. After Meng was detained for allegedly violating US financial laws and sanctions on Iran, China arrested Kovrig and another Canadian citizen.
According to reports, up to 13 Canadians have since been detained by Chinese officials, although it is unclear how many cases are connected to Meng’s arrest.) Beijing then retried a Canadian citizen accused of drug trafficking and sentenced him to death. In essence, China has responded to a Canadian-American law-enforcement decision it didn’t like by arbitrarily punishing Canadians.
Kovrig is thus a reminder that authoritarian regimes behave in inhumane ways as a matter of habit. It is a clear warning that, as China becomes more powerful, foreign citizens who displease Beijing will be at risk so long as they are within reach of Chinese authorities.
All of Canada’s democratic allies must stand firmly against this sort of hostage-taking. They must condemn, on as multilateral a basis as possible, Chinese behavior; make clear that they will not be bought off or bullied into silence by Beijing’s economic influence; and demonstrate that China will face public pressure and isolation in international diplomatic forums until Kovrig and others who have been unjustly detained are released.
The alternative to hanging together is being coerced separately and having one’s citizens deliberately victimized the next time a diplomatic row with China occurs.
Yet Kovrig’s saga also carries dangers for China, because it risks weakening some of that country’s most important links to the outside world. His work and tweets make clear that he was not naive about China. He was skeptical, for instance, about allowing Huawei to build critical 5G networks in the UK. Yet in his role with ICG, Kovrig worked to give the wider world an objective understanding of Chinese politics and policies.
He interacted regularly with Chinese officials, organizations, citizens, and has appeared on Chinese television and in other media. In doing so, Kovrig has been one of many foreign experts who have sought to improve the West’s understanding of China, promote better communication and exchanges, and thereby contribute to constructive relations between Beijing and the world.
In recent years, China has shown a remarkable talent for alienating these people. Late last year, the Hoover Institution released a report detailing Chinese efforts to influence the US political system, as part of a broader strategy for manipulating democratic politics overseas to dull the global response to China’s rise.
China’s influence operations, the report concluded, often “involve use of coercive or corrupting methods to pressure individuals and groups and thereby interfere in the functioning of American civil and political life.” Notably, many of the members of the working group that helped produce the report are academics and former officials who had argued for greater engagement with China in the past.
Kovrig’s arrest imperils those efforts. In mid-January, the Canada warned its citizens “to exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” The US State Department issued a similar warning.
Business leaders have grown wary of traveling to China. Moreover, Kovrig’s case is impeding longstanding talks involving influential US foreign policy figures and their Chinese counterparts. A number of think-tank colleagues in Washington have told me that their employers are restricting travel to China. People who have traveled regularly to China over a period of years now say, quite understandably, that they are hesitant to go back.
This is bad news for the US and other democratic nations. Visits to China, interactions with Chinese officials, and other such exchanges offer valuable insights into Beijing’s ambitions and behavior. What Beijing doesn’t seem to realize is that this is also bad news for China.
A country that still needs foreign investment and technology will not benefit from making foreign CEOs wonder whether they or their employees should take the risk of traveling there. A country that harps on how it is misunderstood and mistreated by the West will not benefit from constricting critical channels of communication.
“NGOs, journalists, and diplomats all play a role in connecting China to the wider world,” said David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012. “The alternative is a China that is isolated, poorly understood and cut off from important ideas and conversations.”
Kovrig’s case is tragic on a human level. It should be a clarion call for the world’s democracies. It is also a sad example of how China is weakening the relationships and exchanges that are so important to its own future.
By Hal Brands
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. -- Ed.