Some of the detainees were subsequently released; others remain in detention, in some cases still awaiting trial in China’s opaque judicial system.
Iran presents an even more confusing picture. Under President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has attempted to break out of the penalty bench in which it has been placed by the United States and its regional adversaries. Despite an obvious interest in normalizing relations with the rest of the world, Iran has continued to detain foreigners and dual citizens on dubious charges, often leaving them in jail or in legal limbo for years.
Notable examples include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, (a British Iranian employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was detained in 2016 while visiting her parents and accused of attempting to overthrow the Iranian regime), Kavous Seyed- Emami (an Iranian Canadian professor who helped found the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and is said to have died by suicide while in detention), and Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student who was arrested in 2016 while carrying out source research primary for a thesis on the Qajar dynasty, sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage, and released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange against Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist indicted in the United States for trying to export unauthorized goods to Iran.
It’s hard to imagine a policy more likely to poison Iran’s image in other countries and complicate its efforts to overcome its isolation. He gives opponents in other countries a convenient stick to denigrate the clerical regime and some of its victims (such as Xiyue Wang) eventually returned home and became opponents of the regime (for quite understandable reasons).
As for Iran’s broader interests, persecuting people like Wang or Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a startling act of diplomatic malpractice.
To be clear: China and Iran aren’t the only countries doing this sort of thing. Turkey has detained a number of foreigners on seemingly dubious grounds and sought to use them as a source of pressure, and the United States has also arrested or detained people on sometimes dubious grounds. And let’s not forget Guantanamo.
What is happening here? Why do states use individuals as diplomatic pawns, at the risk of appearing cruel and undermining their efforts to gain more respect and admiration internationally? I can think of at least five reasons.
First, in a few cases inmates may be guilty. Countries spy on each other all the time, and it is useless to imagine that all the people who have been detained by foreign powers are innocent of wrongdoing.
If so, however, one would expect the government that hires them to go to great lengths to conduct an impartial court process and present the evidence in a clear and convincing manner. Instead, the court proceedings in many of these cases are extremely opaque, reinforcing the perception that victims are being stalked for political reasons.
Second, part of the problem may arise from genuine disagreements over what constitutes espionage or threats to national security. What outsiders see as legitimate journalism, scientific research, or other seemingly innocent activity could be viewed as dangerous (or worse) interference by local authorities.
This problem is more likely to arise when the government in question is unsure of itself and has reason to believe that other states are plotting against it.
Detaining foreigners can also put moderates in the awkward position of appearing less patriotic than diehards.
In the case of China, for example, Xi Jinping has led a wide-ranging crackdown on internal dissent, against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, against the Uyghur minority group, and against anyone he believes might challenge his own. authority. or that of the Chinese Communist Party.
Given this mindset, an extremely broad definition of threats to national security is to be expected, and foreigners may appear to cross the line even if their activities are completely harmless.
Likewise, given that the United States has openly promoted regime change in Iran, supported opposition movements in the past, carried out cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and assassinated a senior Iranian general last year, this shouldn’t surprise us when Iranians are more inclined to see innocent people. activities in a paranoid light. It does not excuse injustice against innocent people, but it can help outsiders understand it.
A third reason to seize innocent victims, of course, is the familiar logic of the tit-for-tat. The detention in China of the two Michaels is clearly an act of retaliation for Canada’s imposition of house arrest on Huaweis Meng Wanzhou. Here the answer is either to get assets that can be traded later for the release of the original inmate, or to impose costs on the other side and therefore deter similar actions in the future.
Fourth, taking hostages in this way can also be a means of obtaining coercive leverage. Hamas used captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as leverage to secure the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011, but imprisoned foreigners can also be seen as a potential source of leverage in broader political conflicts.
The recent arrest in China of Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei came against the backdrop of the sharply deteriorating relationship between Canberra and Beijing, and it can be seen as a demonstration of Chinese resolve and a reminder of other ways China can. make life difficult in Australia.
Finally, states are not unified and fully rational actors, and arbitrary detentions can be used to defend narrow national interests rather than to advance the position of the country as a whole. In some cases, extremist factions who fear a rapprochement with the outside world undermines their own power and status may take hostages to derail accommodation efforts.
Detaining foreigners can also put moderates in the awkward position of appearing less patriotic than extremists, who claim to defend the nation against its infamous foreign enemies.
This dynamic is almost certainly operating in Iran, where extremists have used the detention of foreigners as a means to complicate and delay progress towards accommodation. (Of course, opponents of accommodation in the United States and elsewhere often engage in their own provocations to achieve much the same goal.)
So what might initially appear to be unnecessarily provocative and counterproductive behavior may have some logic behind it, at least some of the time. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the costs of this type of behavior usually outweigh the benefits.
Using innocent people as political pawns can only cast a government in an unflattering light and heighten foreign concerns about its reliability, integrity and long-term intentions.
In most cases, taking innocent people into custody, keeping them without trial, convicting them of false charges and ultimately releasing them after long periods of captivity earns nothing more than tons of bad publicity. Governments that want the world to trust them should think twice before using this ruthless and revolting tactic, and Blinken was right to draw attention to it.
Stephen Walt is Professor of International Relations at Harvard University
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