China, terrorism and the rule of law

Most governments, especially western democratic ones, say they will not deal with terrorists. It only encourages further violence, they argue. There are occasional exceptions, of course, for some terrorists who do not wield AK47s nor carry suicide bombs.

If the terrorist is dressed in a suit and tie and his name is Xi Jinping, dialogue and trade continue.

This terrorist is holding an Australian citizen hostage. The Australian, Dr Yang Hengjun, was arrested in China in August 2019 on trumped up charges of espionage and after a secret “trial” was this month sentenced to death (possibly with a terrorist style pistol shot to the back of the head) by a Chinese “court”.

The sentenced was suspended for two years and if Yang “is of good behaviour” it will be commuted to life imprisonment.

How Yang could possibly be of what the Chinese describe as bad behaviour (public criticism of the Communist Party regime) when he is locked away is a mystery.

What is not a mystery is why this unusual sentencing arrangement was made. It is not Yang who has to be of “good behaviour”, it is the Australian Government. Failure by the Australian Government to kowtow to Chinese wishes could result in Yang being deemed to be of bad behaviour and executed.

Xi is no better that an aircraft hijacker or any other criminal terrorist who threatens to shoot a hostage unless the terrorist’s demands are met.

The difference here, though, is that even in the worst-case terrorist scenario some and terrorists are killed and life everywhere else goes on. That ending is not possible in this case.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and as chilling as it may seem, there is a clash here between, life, principle and money. 

In the past, after Australia’s 2020 call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid, Australia refused to back down and refused to agree to any of China’s demands on various sovereignty issues. The result was Chinese trade sanctions against Australian goods, contrary to international law and trade agreements.

Again, Australia refused to back down. After some time, China began to realise that the bans were harming it more than Australia, so it eased the bans. But it replaced them with harassment of Australian aircraft and vessels with life-endangering laser and sonar blasts.

Now China can add the threat of executing an Australian national unless Australia “behaves”.

The lesson here is not to cave in, but to find ways to make it prohibitively uncomfortable for China to engage in this sort of blackmail and pressure. And that will require more than Australian action alone.

Remember, China eventually agreed to a Covid inquiry – but one proposed by the EU.

And China has backed away from nearly all of its arbitrary trade sanctions as other nations became alternative markets for the banned Australian goods.

How other nations react is important to China and that is why like-minded nations should act in concert.

Indeed, there is a good argument for proposing a formal agreement among rule-of-law liberal democracies to commit to the rule of law and to commit to concerted action where other nations flout the rule of law.

There was such an agreement in 1944. It was called the United Nations. But autocracies had veto power so it became powerless.

The core for the new organisation has to be the rule of law, both within nations and between nations. Nations in NATO; the Quad; AUKUS; ANZUS; and nearly all the EU would qualify. So would South Korea and Indonesia.

Some of those nations, especially the US, would have to change their position on the International Criminal Court and on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Others, like Australia, would have to change their position on secret trials in the interests of “national security”. Commitment to the rule of law would also mean commitment to the World Trade Organisation.

So, when a nation flagrantly breaches the law of the sea or trade laws or refuses to give up people indited by the International Criminal Court, it would face the full force of the rule-of-law nations. That would come with sanctions against that nation as a whole and against offending people and corporations in that nation.

At present China it attempting to pick off nations, such as Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam one by one.

Also, if a nation in such an alliance did not meet internal standards on the rule of law, it, too, would be thrown out of the rule-of-law alliance. Those standards are too well-known to reiterate here, but the trial of Yang is an example of the egregious breach of them.

The importance of internal standards of the rule of law are playing out the in US right now. In rule-of-law nations, no-one, not even the highest political officer holder, is above the law. This was confirmed by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last week in a ruling in one of the myriad of cases against former President Donald Trump.

It will be a triumph for the rule of law if this putative, self-acknowledged autocrat never gets to exercise legal authority in the US ever again. The internal rule of law would have prevented the almost inevitable future abrogation of the international rule of law.

Unfortunately, China is not a rule-of-law country, but one where a party elite determines what will happen and will continue to do so unless overturned by revolution or constrained by the collective action of those nations and their people who want to stand against the forces of terrorism, autocracy, and evil.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 13 February 2024.

2 thoughts on “China, terrorism and the rule of law”

  1. That’s a fantastic summary of the way XI Jinping flouts the international standards of the rule of law, Crispin. And I feel a fool for not having realised it is Australia at this stage who needs to behave for two years not Dr Yang.

  2. Yes. Fully agree. The artillery swigs of Sarajevo was an early example of a collective failure to act which emboldened terrorist action by a nation state. That should have been dealt with by aif attack on those artillery positions on day one.

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