The Debate

China, the US, and Extrajudicial Abductions

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The Debate

China, the US, and Extrajudicial Abductions

China’s new willingness to abduct enemies overseas is worrying. But remember the US has been doing the same for decades.

China, the US, and Extrajudicial Abductions

Protesters in London call for the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Credit: Image by Pres Panayotov /

Will the day ever come when Chinese police throw a bag over someone’s head and drag that person into a van outside their U.S. residence? Will the streets of Tokyo, Mumbai, and New York be secretly patrolled by China’s Snow Leopard commandos? It sounds far-fetched, but slightly less so after five Hong Kong publishers were disappeared by Beijing, one a Swedish citizen who was abducted in Thailand.

Then there’s the publisher Ho Pin, about whom The New York Times writes, “should he ever run afoul of the Communist Party, he has a sound strategy for staying out of the clutches of China’s police: his address.” This is because he lives on Long Island and that’s a solid line of defense, but could it become a Maginot Line?

After all, it happened in Hong Kong, which was meant to be the one free place in the country. The South China Morning Post, its journalistic pride and joy, has already fired some of its greatest talent for being critical of Beijing. Locals formed the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 and Beijing sent in thugs to bruise and ruin the cause. And now Hong Kong’s publishers are snatched up like criminals.

But it’s worth remembering that extrajudicial abduction, or extraordinary rendition, has long been a tool in Washington’s toolbox, one that’s been worn smooth from use. Washington has snatched people out of 54 nations, frequently shipping them to places that practice torture to avoid having to deal with pesky Stateside issues like freedom of the press or human rights. Torture by proxy, it’s called, or simply “outsourcing torture.”

Writing for The Washington Post, Marc A. Thiessen relates a passage from Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke’s memoir. Clarke was former President Bill Clinton’s counterterrorism advisor, and he describes a meeting that took place after a known terrorist was located overseas. The CIA wanted to know what to do. The president contemplated extraordinary rendition, and a White House lawyer argued that this would violate international law (the United Nations considers it a crime against humanity).

Clarke writes that Al Gore then said: “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”

And so they did. From 2001 to 2005, the CIA is believed to have abducted 3,000 individuals. A Council of Europe representative concluded in 2005 that the CIA had kidnapped 100 Europeans. And The Guardian reported in 2008 on the alleged existence of “prison ships,” like the kind featured in the 2013 Schwarzenegger-Stallone thriller Escape Plan. No, it isn’t sci-fi. It’s U.S. policy.

What’s worse, we still have no idea how many cases resemble that of Khalid al-Masri, an innocent German citizen kidnapped by the CIA, tortured, and kept in an Afghan salt mine even after officials admitted they knew he was innocent. Or Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was tortured, deported to Syria, tortured by Syrian intelligence, and forced to sign a confession tying him to al-Qaeda. He, too, was innocent. In October 2007, U.S. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher apologized to Arar, but added that this is a case of collateral damage. Regrettable, but necessary.

Bear in mind, Rohrabacher spearheaded the opposition to China’s most-favored nation status on the basis of Beijing’s human rights abuses. And when a Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioner named Chung Ting-pang was arrested in June 2012 at Ganzhou Airport, Rohrabacher later said of Beijing, “The fact that it has often resorted to extra-judicial measures to attack Falun Gong members not only in China but around the world only makes the vile nature of the regime more obvious.”

Imagine that. But this is not to compare Falun Gong with al-Qaeda or Li Hongzhi with Osama bin Laden. Beijing’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners is the moral inverse of Washington’s war against terrorism. One of the fundamental principles of Falun Gong is compassion, whereas al-Qaeda cleaves to the ideology of qutbiyyah, or waging violent jihad against the non-Muslim world. But Washington and Beijing overlap when, in the name of eliminating existential threats (and yes, Beijing does consider Falun Gong an existential threat), they devastate the innocent.

We either respect international rule of law or we don’t, but we don’t get to flout it and then slam China for the same thing while defending our own violations simply because our bad guys are genuinely bad. That’s what courts exist to determine. And its hard to get Beijing to listen when our attitude about rule of law essentially boils down that famous line from the Latin playwright Terence — “Aliis si licet, tibi non licet.” It’s permitted for others, but not you.