On December 1st, officials in Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of tech giant Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder, on behalf of the United States government. Meng is suspected of helping Huawei to violate US sanctions on Iran and is awaiting extradition to the United States.
The Chinese state media has denounced the detainment of Meng and has called the United States a “despicable rogue,” accusing the US of trying to weaken one of China’s best-known companies and, as a result, hinder China’s growth in the international technology community. In addition, the Chinese government summoned the Canadian ambassador to protest the detention, calling it “unreasonable, unconscionable, and vile in nature” and warning of “grave consequences” if she is not released. For the past year, smartphones and other networking equipment manufactured by Huawei have been considered a national security risk by the US and other countries.
As China continues to denounce the actions of the United States and Canada’s support for these actions, trade tensions continue to mount between the two countries. In the past, China has used indirect methods to put pressure on governments such as making it more difficult to conduct normal business activities in the country and not allowing business executives to leave the country at will. As such, organizations are becoming concerned about the risks that may threaten their operations in China and specifically their travelers to China as a result of this tension.
WorldAware’s intelligence and security experts answer three important questions about the risks of travel to China and what to do if detained.
Is there an increased risk of business travelers being detained or prevented from exiting China as a result of the current situation with Huawei?
The heightened tensions after the detainment of Meng have created a marginally increased risk of business travelers being detained or not allowed to exit the country, but it is currently highly unlikely that Beijing will seek to retaliate by specifically targeting US and Canadian business travelers, at least in the short term.
It is vital to note that Chinese authorities see the US business community as a potential political ally in the current trade war. It is therefore in Beijing's fundamental interest to continue trade and investment ties with the US.
In addition, many US-based firms have significant and profitable operations in China. Chinese leaders want US businesses to pressure the Trump Administration to settle, or at least ease, the economic dispute. From this perspective, it would not be in China's interest for Chinese authorities to target US businesses in retaliation for Meng's arrest.
The Chinese government - and many people in China - see Meng's arrest as a major and unprecedented escalation in Sino-US economic and technological disputes, but any form of eventual retaliation will be within the confines of China's perceived long-term strategic interests.
What issues (both business and personal) would likely create a risk of detention or inability to exit China?
Organizations should consider ensuring that any employee traveling to China be briefed more formally while these tensions exist.
While increased concern is warranted as a result of Meng’s detainment, it is highly unlikely that Beijing would detain any executive indiscriminately. However, officials could step up detention of executives from organizations that may be involved in potentially illegal practices as defined and interpreted by local officials.
As with travel to any country, it is important that travelers be briefed on the customs and laws of that country. Organizations should consider ensuring that any employee traveling to China be briefed more formally while these tensions exist. Foreign travelers and organizations with overseas business interests should note that attitudes towards privacy and personal data, as well as acceptable behavior and cultural and social practices, may differ significantly from the norms and practices that they are likely to find in their home country.
In China, short- and long-term detention by authorities is a risk based on commission of crimes or suspected crimes (including property and drug violations), perceived political agendas, or the possession or distribution of unacceptable or illicit information.
Social activism from any group in China is not tolerated in public, whether in the physical or virtual space, and security services enforce laws preventing activism. Support for anti-government organizations and/or individuals, including support for or association with human rights groups and lawyers working on politically-sensitive cases, also puts individuals at greater risk of detainment in China.
In addition, detainment could occur as a result of unpaid debts to Chinese companies or individuals. Known association, whether personal or otherwise, with Chinese fugitives also places individuals at greater risk of being prevented from exiting China.
What should a traveler do and what are the foreigner's rights if being prevented from exiting or detained in China?
If a foreign national is arrested in China, the Chinese authorities will do whatever they believe is in their own interests with the person. If arrested or prevented from leaving the country, foreign nationals should contact their national diplomatic mission and consult with lawyers.
While the Chinese authorities may want to deter an individual from getting support from the individual’s local diplomatic representation through an embassy or consulate, the individual should make every effort to notify both their organization and diplomatic mission.
Based on the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), an individual cannot be accompanied by a lawyer when the police officer is conducting an interrogation. This is a big difference from many countries' procedures. If you are summoned by the police, they can hold you for up to 24 hours (e.g., “not more than one natural day and night”). The individual can request a translator if they do not speak or are not comfortable speaking Chinese. One should be provided by the police.
Under the terms of the CPL, the individual can contact a lawyer or ask for a lawyer once the police have completed their initial interrogation. Typically, a list of lawyers and help in finding a lawyer is a service provided by the employee’s diplomatic mission in the country.
If they determine that the individual is involved in a crime, the police will detain the individual and send them to a detention facility. Once in a detention facility, the individual will need to wait until the case is heard by a judge, which may last several months, or until the individual can obtain bail using a local lawyer. In either case, the individual will most likely be required to stay in the country.
- Guidance from US Embassy in the event of an arrest
- Chinese law overview for US Citizens
- Advisory for Canadian Citizens
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