China and Its Use of Hostage Diplomacy

A prison cell.

no matter how much time passes, justice will eventually be served. (Image: Ichigo121212 via Pixabay)

Hostage diplomacy is a political tactic in which a country keeps a few people from another nation hostage so as to gain an upper hand in negotiations. In recent years, the Chinese regime has turned out to be a major user of this tactic, attracting the ire of the countries that have been affected by it.

Hostage diplomacy

China’s hostage diplomacy garnered international attention after it detained two Canadian nationals in 2018 after Canada had arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. The two arrested Canadians are still being detained by China under charges of espionage, which many believe to be completely false.

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The Chinese regime even proposed a prisoner swap, asking Canada to return Meng back to China. However, this proposal was rejected by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who noted that such an exchange would only send a message that China can arrest Canadians as they like and coerce Canada to do whatever they want.

Things heated up in 2019 after China detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun, once again on the charges of espionage. Interestingly, the Australian government had severely criticized Beijing’s arrest of the two Canadians before Hengjun’s detainment. And this year, Australian news anchor Cheng Lei was also arrested by Beijing as soon as she landed in China.

China threatened Canada with hostage diplomacy of Canadians in Hong Kong.
China threatened Canada with harm to Canadians in Hong Kong. (Image: via Pixabay)

After Canada indicated plans to provide asylum to Hong Kongers running away from the draconian National Security Law, Beijing made a veiled threat that Canadians living in Hong Kong might be at risk. The Chinese government has also acted against the U.S., warning that it might detain Americans as retaliation for the U.S. taking action against Chinese spies in America.

John Demers, head of the national security division at the Department of Justice, ridiculed Beijing’s hostage diplomacy, pointing out that if China wishes to be the world’s leading nation, it needs to stop taking hostages and learn to respect the rule of law.


A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found that China has been increasingly using coercive strategies, including hostage diplomacy by taking hostages, against several nations starting in 2018. In total, 152 incidents of coercive diplomacy were discovered, with 34 of them occurring in the first 8 months of 2020. The authors of the report noted that China will continue to use such tactics in diplomacy unless other nations come up with an effective way to resist it.

“One obvious avenue is — and this will be highly controversial — that China relies heavily on food imports from around the world to feed its population… That includes Canadian corn and grain and so if there’s a collective effort by countries such as Australia and Canada that supply a disproportionate amount of basic foodstuffs to China it would send a clear signal that if you’re going to play like that, we have ways of causing pain,” said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor, as reported by the National Post.

Hands cupping soy beans.
China relies on food imports from Canada and Australia. (Image: via Pexels)

Leuprecht points out that China has made itself so unpopular internationally that politicians find it easy to call out the Asian nation in public for its coercive tactics. However, he is doubtful whether some countries like Canada will actually make any serious change in policies to counter such actions by China.

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