China’s Hostage Diplomacy

Date: January 11, 2019
By Donald Clarke

Main entrance to the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China (Source: Wikimedia/Rneches)

An obscure Chinese drug case has been pushed to the center of China’s relations with Canada—and, by implication, with the rest of the world. The case appears to reinforce the message, previously suggested by the detentions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, that China views the holding of human hostages as an acceptable way to conduct diplomacy.

Canadian Robert Schellenberg entered China in November of 2014 and was detained the following month on charges of planning to smuggle almost 500 pounds of crystal methamphetamine from China to Australia. Sentenced just last November to 15 years’ imprisonment, he effectively lost—indeed, more than lost—his appeal in the Liaoning Provincial High Court on Dec. 29, 2018. The High Court sent his case back for retrial, suggesting a harsher sentence would be appropriate. That could include the death penalty.

Several unusual features of the Schellenberg case suggest that it may be connected to China’s efforts to get Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive detained in Canada on Dec. 11, released before she is extradited to the United States to face charges of bank fraud related to Iran sanctions.