SNAPSHOT: Reluctance to travel to China over detention threat underscores political risks

Reluctance to travel to China over detention threat underscores political risks

OVERVIEW

  • Interviews with a dozen executives, diplomats, consultants, and academics carried out by Bloomberg in a report on Monday (21 December) reveal that many of them perceive a heightened risk of travelling to China, as well as Hong Kong since the imposition of the national security law in June. The report quoted the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Shanghai as saying that the chamber has received calls from member firms about the threat of arbitrary detention, though the risk is assessed as ‘small, but it’s not zero.’
  • The Bloomberg report comes after the European Union (EU) on 12 December urged China to release all reporters and citizens detained in relation to their journalism. The EU’s request followed the confirmation on 11 December that Chinese authorities on 7 December arrested Haze Fan, a Bloomberg News staffer at the company’s Beijing office, on suspicion of endangering national security.
  • The Australian Strategic Policy Institute in a recent report collated data on eight types of ‘coercive measures’, observing that such tactics have greatly increased in the past few years. These measures include: ‘trade sanctions, investment restrictions, tourism bans and popular boycotts… arbitrary detention, restrictions on official travel and state-issued threats’.

ASSESSMENT

  • Fan’s arrest underscores the elevated risk of arbitrary detention for personnel employed in foreign-based companies. Australian reporters working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Financial Review in September fled China after being interrogated in connection with the detention of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for state news outlet CGTN. Cheng Lei has not been seen since an arrest over similar national security-related charges in August. The developments come after staffers of various US news outlets have been expelled from China as a reprisal for measures targeting Chinese state news outlets in the US.
  • Canada’s senior diplomat in Hong Kong on 3 November revealed that Ottawa has prepared ‘detailed plans’ to evacuate a ‘large number’ of its citizens from Hong Kong if their safety and security are threatened by China. Jeff Nankivell, Canada’s consul general in Hong Kong and Macau, was addressing a parliamentary committee assessing the country’s ties with China in the Canadian capital. Approximately 300,000 Canadian citizens, the overwhelming majority of which are ethnic Chinese, currently reside in Hong Kong.
  • Nankivell’s testimony followed a warning by Beijing’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, that any ‘interference in China’s domestic affairs’ could jeopardise ‘the good health and safety’ of Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong. While the evacuation plan was described by Nankivell as an ‘extreme scenario’ that seems to be low in likelihood, the plan highlighted increased concerns about China’s retaliatory measures targeting expatriates over actions by their home governments.
  • A report by the European Chamber of Commerce in China in September said there were growing concerns among EU firms of ‘arbitrary punishment’ amid heightened geopolitical tensions.
  • The US in January 2019 and Australia in July 2020 in travel advisories warned citizens of risks regarding travel to China. The US warned of risks including arbitrary enforcement of local laws, so-called ‘exit bans’, in which US citizens can be held in China and targeted with interrogation and detention, harassment, and scrutiny, especially for US-China dual nationals and US citizens of Chinese heritage. Australia updated travel advice to warn its citizens of the ‘risk of arbitrary detention’ over national security.
  • Chinese prosecutors in June 2020 charged Canadians Kovrig and Spavor with espionage. The charges came 18 months after the two were arrested amid a diplomatic row between Canada and China that fomented after Canadian police arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. The case epitomises the elevated risk of arrest, detention, and deportation of foreign citizens in China over actions taken by their home governments.
  • Increased measures targeting foreign personnel in China over national security-linked allegations over the past few months come as President Xi Jinping on 12 December in a meeting with the Politburo – the top policy-making body of the ruling Chinese Communist Party – highlighted the importance of political security and the need to mitigate risks to national security, according to Chinese state media. Xi’s remarks suggest that national security will increase in importance in the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s agenda, potentially indicating continuing national security-linked measures targeting expatriates.  

  • Risks could diminish under the incoming US administration of President-elect Joe Biden with a possible improvement of ties with China, though travel restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic could reduce or complicate journeys. The Chinese embassy in the US on Saturday (19 December) told its US-based citizens to avoid all non-essential travel during the holiday period amid increasing concern in China regarding imported COVID-19 cases. However, the expansion of immunisation programmes and attendant vaccination passports could in the medium term gradually revitalise travel.

 

ADVICE

  • Foreign-based businesses with interests in China and staff from countries with which ties to China have worsened, especially those that voiced opinions or published content on politically sensitive matters, are particularly exposed to the threat of detention.
  • Companies should assess the impact of geopolitical tensions on the security of staff, assets, and operations. Anticipate heightened scrutiny and detention risks.
  • Advise staff to refrain from commenting on politically sensitive matters throughout their stay in China to mitigate detention risks.