Michael Scott Moore is the author of, among other books, The Desert and the Sea, a memoir of his 32-month ordeal as a pirate hostage. He sits on the board of Hostage US.
The arraignment and release of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecom executive who had been arrested in Canada in 2018 on U.S. charges of financial fraud, and the near-simultaneous departure of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after more than 1,000 days in Chinese prisons on vague allegations of espionage, confirmed to many observers that China had engaged in “hostage diplomacy,” or tit-for-tat imprisonment.
The mutual-seeming releases could easily wake up self-congratulation and jingoistic fury in both China and the West. In many ways, they already have: When she returned to China, Ms. Meng was hailed as a survivor of American hostage diplomacy and judicial aggression. But Beijing also seems to have blinked. Ms. Meng had to sign a deferred prosecution agreement and an admission that she made false statements about a transfer of stocks in defiance of a U.S. embargo on trade with Iran. Here in the West, meanwhile, the mutual release of the two Michaels looked more like a prisoner exchange than a true turning of the gears of justice.
But any sense of anger or pride would be wasted. The reality is that every negotiation to free a hostage or unlawful detainee is a study in compromise, not an occasion for patriotism. It’s a good time to think about how Western values and assumptions are perceived around the world.
I know this from my own time as a hostage. I spent nearly three years as a captive of Somali pirates after they kidnapped me in 2012, on the assumption that any American journalist must have a couple of million dollars lying around at home. I’m also a German citizen, and when the pirates learned I lived in Europe, they asked about my “sub-clan.” Somali social arrangements depend on tribal allegiances, and if my parents’ clans were “Europe” and “America,” that sounded fantastic for their prospects of a payout.
So my sub-clan was – what exactly?
“Franza?” an armed pirate asked me one hot afternoon.
“France? No, Germany,” I replied.
“Yes, Hitler!” (The pirates were deeply provincial Muslims who had never met anyone Jewish, and so they were antisemitic; this guard thought he was paying me a compliment.)
The anecdote works as a broad cartoon of how societies perceive, or misperceive, the values of other cultures. Hostage-takings and other violent conflicts arise from these vicious misunderstandings. It’s why I was not elated when a ransom of more than a million dollars was finally handed over to my captors in 2014; money flowed to the criminals, and they were free to go on thinking that all Westerners must be rich. It was a compromise.
China’s recent rhetoric about “hostage diplomacy” reminded me of that weird, confusing afternoon, just as I was reminded when street riots broke out in Muslim countries in 2005 and 2006 because a Danish newspaper had published some cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. People in Pakistan, Kuwait and Iran, among other countries with extremist or religious governments, boycotted Danish goods and burned the Danish flag. Many Western observers wondered how a boycott of havarti cheese could influence a newspaper, which of course was free to publish anything it wanted.
But they missed the core reason why many protesters were so irate: because they assumed, based on their own experiences, that Denmark’s government had rubber-stamped the cartoons. The protesters couldn’t grasp the vital Western principle of free speech, because that institution was foreign to many of these demagogic societies. “If the government doesn’t take steps to stop the media from attacking a religion,” liberal-leaning Pakistani cartoonist Shujaat Ali argued at the time, “it could damage their international reputation.”
Similarly, the Chinese government assumes – or finds it convenient to tell its people – that Western court systems aren’t independent, and that Ms. Meng was effectively arrested to inconvenience Beijing. The U.S. does have a remarkably independent judiciary; however, these measurements are relative, and negotiating in “hostage diplomacy” cases can degrade at least the perceived purity of the system. To me it looks as if the Justice Department found room to move within its own laws and solve the problem using a deferred prosecution agreement. But Beijing is also free to believe that the U.S. has worked with Canada to cut some kind of deal for the Michaels. As a result, bad-actor governments around the world can entrench and amplify their doubts that the U.S.’s Justice Department is apolitical.
Still, knee-jerk anger at the other side is not a decent response. The worst threat to Western institutions does not come from the East. Manoeuvring to free two citizens may be realpolitik – that is, the practical price of living in the world – but we shoot ourselves in the foot when we run down our own institutions free of charge. The Trumpism of populists across the West has been cynical enough to erode faith in our elections as well as our judicial systems, and few of the demagogues have shown the wits to realize that keeping such things in good condition is a hard barrier between democratic freedoms and their opposites.
It is these kinds of self-defeating efforts – court-packing, political judicial appointments and wild criticisms of the independence of our justice systems, and especially the American rhetoric about “Trump” and “Obama” judges – that will do more to bring about unfreedom in the West than anything China can do.
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