• Written by Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

The case of Australian Karm Gilespie, who has been sentenced to death by a Chinese court on drugs charges pending an appeal, cannot be separated from a recent souring in Sino-Australian relations.

Gilespie was reportedly arrested with 7.5 kilograms of ice in his luggage in 2013, while attempting to leave China.

His arrest clearly pre-dates the recent deterioration of relations between Australia and China. But the sudden announcement of his death sentence raises questions about whether China-Australia tensions have influenced his case.

Certainly, the backdrop makes his prospects even more grim. Bad relations lessen the chance of securing a commutation of his sentence, or indeed his early release, in an opaque justice system.

These are very unpromising circumstances for a foreigner who falls foul of the Chinese authorities, whether that individual has done anything wrong or not. The risks are greater these days for nationals of countries – like Australia and Canada – that have displeased Beijing.

One of the ways this has played out has been in a rise in “hostage diplomacy”, a relatively modern description of an age-old diplomatic weapon. It occurs when one country detains a foreign citizen as retaliation for actions that might have displeased it, or as a bargaining chip to secure the release of one of its own nationals, or a combination of both.

In Australia’s case, it is hard to separate the example of Chinese-Australian academic Yang Hengjun from a souring of relations. Yang was arrested in early 2019. He has lived ever since under the shadow of espionage charges that carry the death penalty.

The Australian government has been pushing for Yang’s release, or at least access to him for his family and lawyers. He has been held in solitary confinement for much, if not all, of his detention.

Read more: Australian-Chinese author's detention raises important questions about China's motivations

Again, it is hard not suspect an element of “hostage diplomacy” at play. It has not been revealed what he is alleged to have done wrong beyond his public criticism of the communist system.

His continued detention without reasonable explanation is an affront to the sort of relationship Australia has sought to build with China.

In Canada’s case, Beijing’s ire has been directed at Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of telecommunications giant Huawei, pending American-initiated extradition hearings.

Meng is accused of breaching Iran sanctions.

In retaliation, China has arrested two Canadians and held them since 2018. The continued detention of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor are pernicious cases of hostage diplomacy against the release of a Chinese national awaiting further extradition hearings in Canada.

Kovrig and Spavor are being detained on allegations of breaching Chinese security. No details have been forthcoming.

Unlike the Canadians in primitive detention in China, Meng is biding her time in luxury accommodation in Vancouver before court proceedings reach a conclusion.

The treatment of Kovrig and Spavor is, not to put too fine a point on it, outrageous. Beijing’s resort to this form of hostage diplomacy is a stain on its reputation.

It quashes doubt about the gulf that has opened in recent years between global aspirations for China’s compliance with a rules-based international order and its behaviour.

In the sedate world of international diplomacy, Chinese official representative are giving voice to a new and uncompromising diplomatic posture. After biding its time and holding its counsel, Beijing has unleashed on the world the sort of rhetoric that would not have been out of place during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese ambassador in Ottawa, Lu Shaye, wrote in a Canadian publication about Meng’s arrest in words that could have been drawn from a Maoist handbook.

The reason why some people are used to arrogantly adopt double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy. In such a context the rule of law is nothing but a tool of the political class and a fig leaf for their practising negotiations in the international arena. What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law.

These words were contributed, apparently, without irony.

In recent Chinese history, hostage diplomacy is not new.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), British diplomats and civilians were held hostage for several years as retaliation for humiliations colonisers had imposed on the Chinese.

Then there was the case of Reuters journalist Anthony Grey. He was detained in his apartment in Beijing for 777 days in retaliation for the arrest of a New China News Agency journalist in Hong Kong.

Red Guards killed Grey’s cat and dumped its corpse on his bed. He wrote about his experiences in Hostage in Peking.

In the annals of hostage diplomacy, China is far from alone in the modern era in detaining foreign nationals for political purposes.

While it was not referred to in those days as hostage diplomacy, perhaps the most striking example was the detention in Tehran of American embassy personnel after the fall of the shah.

Eventually, after 444 days and attempts to negotiate the return of the shah to stand trial in Tehran, the last of the Americans was released. This was not before an abortive attempt in the dying days of the Carter administration to free them by military force. Jimmy Carter’s presidency effectively crashed and burned in the wreckage of helicopters in the desert outside Tehran.

Another example of Iranian hostage diplomacy is the case of British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who has been convicted of spying and sentenced to ten years in jail.

No details have emerged of what she is alleged to have done.

Read more: The Australian government needs to step up its fight to free Kylie Moore-Gilbert from prison in Iran

Over the years, terrorist groups in the Middle East have regularly taken Western hostages as bargaining chips in internal power struggles or for ransom. This is not hostage diplomacy per se, but it shares characteristics in common with “state-sponsored” hostage takers.

In China’s case, hostage diplomacy in an environment in which it feels under siege globally is a bad development. Unfortunately for those like Karm Gilespie who are arguably caught up in a wider political game, there is little sign of tensions easing. To the contrary, the atmosphere is getting worse.

To its discredit, hostage diplomacy looks set to remain part of Beijing’s diplomatic arsenal for the time being.

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