Hostages to History: The Two Michaels and Post-Trumpian Geopolitics

The predictable thing for Xi Jinping to do now would be to double down on “judicial sovereignty”. It would be so much smarter if, instead, he surprised the world.

Canadian Chargé D’affaires Jim Nickel, centre-left, joined by diplomats from two dozen other countries outside the Beijing courthouse where Michael Kovrig’s secret trial was being held, Monday, March 22, 2021/


Lisa Van Dusen

March 22, 2021

While Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor await the next instalment of their fates as targets of hostage diplomacy, it may be some small consolation for them to have starred in an instructive object lesson.

As Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibullah, told CBC’s Rosemary Barton on Sunday, the day before her husband’s “trial”, like Spavor’s three days earlier, produced a deferred verdict on Monday: “Human beings should not have to pay the price for a geopolitical dispute.”

After more than two years in detention on trumped-up espionage charges used as leverage in a narrative war over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s prosecution, they’ve already paid more of a price than they surely envisioned when calculating the risks of working abroad.

But Kovrig and Spavor aren’t just paying the price for a geopolitical dispute, they’re victims of a recent geopolitical trend. Before the two Michaels — Kovrig a diplomat and Spavor a business consultant — were profiled and captured in China on December 10, 2018, hostage-taking was traditionally the purview of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and other Iranian franchisees, Boko Haram, the Red Brigades — a rotating array of non-state actors who used violence and the threat of violence as leverage to meet otherwise unobtainable goals. Then again, until six weeks before the two Michaels were detained, the beheading of journalists (aka “decapitation diplomacy”) had been the propaganda calling card of ISIS, not a censorship option for G20 governments.

But the norm-assaulting tenure of Donald Trump had an effect on international relations similar to that of a drunken substitute teacher on a classroom of spitballing, hair-pulling, trashcan-arsonist fourth graders. The vacuum of American leadership at a time when a confluence of factors had already emboldened a range of anti-democracy interests — geopolitical and otherwise — produced previously unthinkable deviations from the longstanding consensus on how countries should conduct themselves.

That those deviations included Donald Trump’s use of the White House as a staging ground for a series of otherwise wholly implausible degradations of American influence was just the most aberrational thread of that trend. His bilateral relationship with China was one of overt love-hate volatility and performative gold mine-ism as a relentless strategic asset, adjusted in early 2020 for pre-election expediency to consistent belligerence.

The norm-assaulting tenure of Donald Trump had an effect on international relations similar to that of a drunken substitute teacher on a classroom of spitballing, hair-pulling, trashcan-arsonist fourth graders.

As evident in China’s reaction in February to Canada joining the US and 56 other countries in denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens, Beijing has a vested interest in maintaining the hyperbolic, emotionally charged, misdirectional standards of projection-riddled Trumpian discourse. The kicker of Beijing’s statement, a demand that the US reflect upon its “hypocritical performance and immediately stop the hegemonic act of interfering with China’s judicial sovereignty,” was both projection and hypocrisy, given how flagrantly China’s regular protests of sovereignty belie its disrespect for the sovereignty of countries around the world from Canada to Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka to Myanmar and beyond.

Which is why Ambassador Kirsten Hillman’s comment that her US interlocutors have said they’re treating this hostage case just as they would if the two Michaels were American is so important. It underscores the return, under Joe Biden, to not just American moral authority but to international solidarity on human rights, a development reflected in Monday’s report of fresh sanctions by the US, the EU, Canada and Britain against China for the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang.

It’s also why any surprise expressed at the tone of last week’s meeting in Anchorage between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts, Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, was misplaced if not disingenuous. After four years of Beijing deploying hostage diplomacy, wolf warrior diplomacy, coercive diplomacy and other ironic euphemisms for unprecedented belligerence, it would have been bizarre if an incoming administration represented by a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former vice president rather than a megalomaniacal reality-show host had behaved any differently. The authenticity and truth displayed by Blinken and Sullivan represented the unsurprising corrective back to normalcy, not the deviation from it.

It was widely observed that both sides of the table in Anchorage were playing to domestic audiences. While that may be true, there’s a difference between a democratically elected government playing to voters and a totalitarian one playing to citizens to whom it is not accountable. The Communist Party’s messaging to Chinese citizens is about projecting the kind of power that can’t be challenged at home if it can’t be challenged anywhere else — that’s the domestic political branding element behind its geopolitical bullying. To the extent that Beijing plays to a home crowd on the world stage, it’s about deterring criticism and discrediting democracy as an existential threat to maintain stability within its own borders. The more its burgeoning surveillance state is replicated elsewhere, the thinking apparently goes, the easier that will be.

It’s a strategy that depends overwhelmingly on the collaboration of amenable strangers, including corrupt Western interests who also hanker for a democracy-free playing field on which to consolidate power they can’t come by honestly. While that approach has been covertly successful over the past two decades, it’s hard not to think that if it were truly sustainable in the long term, the otherwise highly sophisticated and civilized government of China wouldn’t have to resort to the tactics of terrorists to achieve its aims.

In that sense, the return to normalcy in Washington is, ultimately, good for both countries. And for Canada.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.