Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

Of Hostage Diplomacy and History: China and American Political Polarization

Beijing’s threats against U.S. citizens in China seemingly ignore the central place that “hostage diplomacy” has played in American history.

By Bradley J. Murg for
Of Hostage Diplomacy and History: China and American Political Polarization

American college students protesting the US Embassy hostage crisis in Iran, 1979.

Credit: Flickr/Brian Crawford

On October 18, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had warned the United States via its embassy in Beijing, as well as through other official channels, that it would respond to recent prosecutions of several People’s Liberation Army-linked, Chinese scholars in the United States by potentially detaining American citizens in China. This is consistent with a travel advisory issued by the State Department in September warning Americans as to the possibility of arbitrary detention of and exit bans against foreigners by China “to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”

“Hostage diplomacy” is certainly not a new issue. China’s detaining of two Canadian citizens – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – since 2018 has wrought extreme damage to Beijing’s relationship with Ottawa, leading normally conciliatory Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to forcefully condemn Beijing’s actions and turning Canada’s relationship with China into a significant point of domestic political debate. According to the polling firm Angus Reid, Canadian popular opinion toward China has entirely collapsed: shifting from 58 percent of the country holding a “favorable” view of China in 2005 to a rock bottom 14 percent in 2020. The evacuation in September of two Australian journalists from China – after respectively seeking refuge on the grounds of the Australian Embassy in Beijing and its consulate in Shanghai – further served to alienate Canberra and outrage the country’s population. China’s history of hostage diplomacy goes back even further, however – to the seizure of the British Embassy in 1967 and the subsequent detention of British citizens for a period of two years.

It is difficult to see how further expansion of “hostage diplomacy” in any way serves Beijing’s best interests. Declaring extortion and false imprisonment as standard instruments in a country’s foreign policy toolkit is not exactly in line with “Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice” and can be rightfully seen as the final nail in the coffin of Beijing’s once omnipresent “responsible power” narrative. Nevertheless, for a state that continues to suffer from intense weaknesses in both its soft power and public diplomacy – including a diverse set of self-inflicted wounds via its “Wolf Warrior” diplomatic model – this is certainly consistent and perhaps even yields some ancillary domestic benefits.

Since the launch of the Patriotic Education Campaign in 1991, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly leaned on state-led nationalism as a key pillar of its domestic legitimacy. The party slogan “Never Forget National Humiliation” – also the title of Zheng Wang’s brilliant book examining the role of nationalism in Chinese domestic and foreign policy – is useful to recall here. The importance of history in the development of national narratives and building popular support when needed is a topic in which Beijing is expert. Yet in announcing this policy, the Chinese side seems to be unaware of the unique role that hostage diplomacy has played in the development of American foreign policy and its own military and that the usage of history to achieve national unity is a game any government can play. China, seemingly without realizing it, has walked into a topic that is central in the narrative of American history, and has placed itself on the wrong side of that narrative. Some background here is required.

The United States Department of the Navy was established in 1798 in direct response to the taking of American hostages in the Mediterranean by the Barbary Corsairs, pirates hailing from the north African provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This problem led to the First Barbary War (1801-1805), which culminated in the capture of the Libyan city of Derna and the raising of the American flag over the city – depicting, for the first time, the ability of the United States to project power overseas . The event is also recorded in both “The Marine’s Hymn,” which opens with the famous line: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli,” and in the first U.S. military monument, the Tripoli Memorial, located on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

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Perhaps of greatest interest, this was the moment when a young country that had fought its War of Independence as a loosely allied set of individual British colonies consolidated its military strength into a truly cohesive, national force. More recently, one of the defining events of the last 50 years of American foreign policy – the real legacy of which is still felt today – was Iran’s seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 and Tehran’s refusal to release 52 American diplomats over 444 days. When Americans think of Iran it is that event and the images therefrom that come to mind, together with the overwhelming anger it caused among Americans across the political spectrum. In short, the U.S. has a lengthy and institutionally-defining history of strong responses to actions against its citizens abroad.

It is useful to note here that amid extreme political polarization in the United States, there is one issue that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree upon: an intensely negative opinion of China. The most recent Pew survey showed a record 73 percent of Americans hold a view of China that is “unfavorable.”

This number should disabuse anyone of the notion that a new administration in the White House would be able to radically change course and return to the status quo ante “engagement policy,” even if it wished to. However, of much greater interest, should China act on its threat and begin to detain American citizens resident in China, owing to the distinct place that hostage diplomacy plays in American history, there exists a ready-made, rally-round the flag, anti-China, historical narrative for a new administration to deploy in order to both satiate the inevitable, extreme popular outrage that would follow and in domestic political terms, to begin to unify the country (at least to some extent) around a common enemy after four years of extreme division. It would be a political opportunity simply too good to pass up for a new administration in Washington.

It has been argued that Beijing views the United States as weak and hopelessly divided – opening space for China to assume a commanding role on the global stage. Ironically, targeting Americans in a further expansion of hostage diplomacy could very well achieve the exact opposite: a more unified U.S. (albeit one with substantial domestic political disagreements) and a new White House locked into an ever more aggressive containment strategy.

Bradley J. Murg, Ph.D. is Senior Advisor and Distinguished Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and Senior Academic Advisor at Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh.