Analysis: China plays hardball with ex-diplomat's seizure

China is playing hardball with the detention of a former Canadian diplomat days after Canada arrested a leading Chinese executive.

In many ways it looks like a classic Chinese response to perceived slights: Deny any wrongdoing, seize the moral high ground and exert maximum pressure to extract concessions. But Beijing's detention of Michael Kovrig also reflects an increasingly bold approach to international disputes under President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a vast expansion of China's diplomatic, military and economic power.

China has often retaliated against foreign governments and corporations in diplomatic disputes, but rarely by holding a foreign national.

Kovrig was detained Monday in Beijing after the Chinese government summoned Canadian Ambassador John McCallum over the weekend to protest the Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, the world's largest supplier of network gear.

McCallum was warned of "grave consequences" if Meng was not released. Late Tuesday, she was released on bail pending a decision on whether to extradite her to the United States, where she's wanted for allegedly trying to evade sanctions against Iran.

China has refused to confirm Kovrig's detention and Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang repeatedly dodged reporters' questions Wednesday, saying he had "nothing to offer" about the case.

However, Lu said the International Crisis Group, for whom Kovrig works in Hong Kong as an analyst, was not registered in China and its activities in the country would be illegal.

Kovrig's case is unusual, but commercial retaliation against companies from countries at odds with Beijing over political or military issues has grown increasingly common as China exercises its leverage as the world's second largest economy.

The most recent high-profile target was South Korean retailer Lotte, whose business in China was devastated after it sold land to the Seoul government for use in an U.S. anti-missile system stridently opposed by Beijing.

Authorities closed most of the South Korean company's 99 supermarkets and other outlets — often alleging safety violations — and closed down a theme park project. Beijing claimed the THAAD anti-missile system threatened its security by allowing U.S. forces to see into Chinese territory.

Lotte is not alone. Chinese boycotted Norwegian salmon over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the late dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. They stopped buying fruit from the Philippines amid a dispute over territory in the South China Sea. Mobs attacked Japanese cars and department stores after Tokyo nationalized East China Sea islands claimed by China.

Such movements have grassroots support but since public protests are largely banned in China they are almost certainly countenanced by the ruling Communist Party. The government avoids acknowledging its role to avoid damaging its image as a champion of free trade

Kovrig's detention hasn't been widely reported within China and it hasn't been explicitly connected to Meng's case. Yet, there's little doubt they're seen as linked by many Chinese, who are showing firm support for Meng online and on the street: Huawei's global success is a source of immense national pride.

"If people in the rest of the world make this association, it's because Meng Wanzhou's arrest was really way over the line. Naturally, people would think that China would take revenge," Hu Xijin, editor of Communist Party newspaper Global Times wrote on his Weibo microblog.

Kovrig's detention "is a kind of declaration to the Canadian government," said Zeng Yuan, a university student in finance. "China cannot sit and await its fate, and let them make ambiguous accusations against Chinese citizens."

Xi needs to show he's fighting back against foreign slights, particularly at a time when his government is grappling with a slowing economy, rising debt levels and the fallout from trade friction with the U.S., said Joseph Cheng, a long-time observer of Chinese politics now retired from the City University of Hong Kong.

Xi hasn't convened a party plenary meeting that usually would have been held last month at the latest. That suggests the leadership is stumped over a convincing strategy for the immediate future, Cheng and other analysts say.

"For the sake of the domestic audience, Xi has to be seen as standing firm," Cheng said.

Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan believes that public pressure has forced Xi's response.

China "upgraded a legal matter to one of foreign relations, even of military confrontation, and that is not very wise," Zhang said.

Precedent suggests China will relent only when it gets its way.

In 2014, a Canadian couple were detained in northeastern China and charged with espionage following Canada's arrest of a man accused of stealing U.S. aviation secrets for China.

Julia and Kevin Garrett, both long-term residents of China, were released months later after the accused spy, Su Bin, allowed himself to be extradited to the U.S. where he took a plea deal.

Five years earlier, as Xi prepared to take over as secretary general of the party, China detained four employees of Japanese construction company Fujita following the arrest in Japan of a Chinese fishing boat captain whose vessel collided with Japanese coast guard boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The four were released only after Japan let the captain go home.


Christopher Bodeen has covered politics in China and Taiwan for The Associated Press for more than two decades.