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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Chinese government is threatening to detain foreign citizens unless their home governments do what Beijing demands. In some cases, China has already made good on those threats.

The big picture: This marks a potential evolution of China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" to outright rogue state behavior, putting it in the company of countries like North Korea and Iran, which have also engaged in hostage diplomacy.

Driving the news: Over the summer, Chinese officials told the Trump administration they may detain Americans in China if the Department of Justice prosecutes scholars with ties to China's military, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

  • The threats began after the FBI interrogated a visiting Chinese military researcher, who then spent weeks sheltering in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, a story first reported by Axios.

It's no idle threat. In 2018, China detained two Canadian citizens, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, just days after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to comply with a U.S. extradition request.

  • The two men have since been charged with espionage-related crimes and held without consular or lawyer visits.
  • Those arrests cast a chill over Canadian citizens living in China as the relationship between China and Canada swiftly deteriorated.

Australia, too, has felt pressure. Earlier this year, Australia led the effort to launch a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, drawing intense criticism from China, which then imposed trade sanctions on Australia.

  • Then, in early September, Australian diplomats assisted two Australian journalists in leaving China amid concerns Chinese authorities might detain them.

The Chinese government has also detained or even abducted from abroad foreign nationals of Chinese origin, such as the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, though Gui's case did not seem intended to pressure the Swedish government.

What the U.S. is saying: “If China wants to be seen as one of the world’s leading nations, it should respect the rule of law and stop taking hostages," John Demers, head of the national security division at the Department of Justice, told the Wall Street Journal.

What China is saying: "By alleging that foreign nationals are arbitrarily detained in China, the United States is acting as the guilty party blaming the innocent," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in an Oct. 19 press briefing.

The bottom line: China's actions threaten the image it has sought to project to the rest of the world, as a responsible rising power and a less-coercive alternative to the West.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Former Google CEO and others call for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new set of proposals by a group of influential D.C. insiders and tech industry practitioners calling for a degree of "bifurcation" in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors is circulating in the Biden administration. Axios has obtained a copy.

Why it matters: The idea of "decoupling" certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies felt radical three years ago, when Trump's trade war brought the term into common parlance. But now the strategy has growing bipartisan and even industry support.

Biden gets COVID-19 booster shot on live television

President Biden received a Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine booster shot on live television on Monday, while also urging Americans to get vaccinated.

Driving the news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended Pfizer booster shots for millions of people, including those 65 years and older and individuals at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

John Hinckley, who shot Reagan, wins unconditional release

John Hinckley Jr. sitting on the back seat of a car in 1981. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

A federal judge on Monday approved the unconditional release of John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate former President Reagan in 1981.

State of play: U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington ruled that Hinckley can be freed from all court supervision in 2022 if he remains mentally stable and continues to follow rules that were imposed on him after he was released from a Washington mental health facility in 2016 to live in Virginia, AP reports.