Is the phoney war getting real? Americans and Canadians weigh in on US travel warning against China

  • As Washington dials up rhetoric and tells citizens in China they may be stopped from leaving, Westerners have sense that something bigger may be brewing
Kristin Huang Laura Zhou Laurie Chen UPDATED :

While some North Americans living in China say a renewed travel warning from Washington is a scare tactic to stir up anti-China sentiments in the United States and Canada, others are concerned that the alert would make their countrymen less willing to live in, travel to and invest in China.

The US State Department issued a warning on Thursday that officials in China “have asserted broad authority” to prevent US citizens from leaving the country and for US citizens to beware of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

On Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang rejected the claims, saying China always welcomed foreign citizens and protected their lawful rights.

“Frankly speaking, the travel advisory issued by the United States does not hold water,” Lu said.

In an interview, US citizen James Craig Neumann, who first went to China in 1975 and is a professor of English at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology in Hangzhou, said he was convinced the warning was a ruse by US President Donald Trump to set Americans against China.

“Of course I will not leave. This warning will just stir up anti-Chinese sentiments in the US, since many Americans [already] feel threatened about China’s growing power,” said Neumann, adding that American visitors to China should not feel at risk.

China-US affairs expert Yuan Zheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an official think tank under the State Council, said the Chinese government welcomed Americans wanting to travel and do business in the country.

“Now that China-US ties are at a historic low, the Chinese side and the US side, especially the US, need a gesture that is of mutual benefit,” Yuan said, adding that the American sabre-rattling against China was not new.

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The US advisory notice followed the detention last month of two Canadians in China, accused of harming the country’s security.

Those detentions took place days after Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States.

Ankit Panda, a New York City-based writer, editor and international affairs analyst, took to Twitter on Friday to say that he had decided to go ahead with a trip to China this month.

“Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain unjustly detained. Neither have been charged with any crime and the circumstances of their detention remain unexplained,” he said.

Canadian Michael Kovrig remains in detention in China, part of a situation that some of his countrymen have suggested leaves Canada a soft target for Beijing in its battles with Washington. Photo: AP

An American citizen living in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the South China Morning Post that he was cautious after the renewed warning and feared that he and other foreigners residing in China would be caught in the middle if relations between China and the US deteriorated.

“As an American living here, I try to keep a low profile anyway, and generally experience no hardship,” he said. “This just feels like a bad way to start 2019.

“I don’t really trust WeChat or Huawei, et cetera. I don’t think Meng’s arrest was entirely necessary. I’m sure they could’ve put pressure on China in a way that did not hold somebody captive.”

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The travel alert worried Canadians too. Businessman Sheldon Hunt said the warning would prompt people investing in China to be much more cautious and look to other, more promising and secure countries.

“Increasing costs and a slowdown in the Chinese economy were already pushing some companies in this direction – now there is a very strong political push added to this calculation,” Hunt said.

Canada announced on Thursday that 13 of its citizens had been detained in China since Meng was detained on December 1. It said there were about 200 Canadians detained in China for various alleged infractions and who face legal proceedings.

At a press conference organised by the State Council Information Office on Friday, Liu Zhenyu, vice-minister of justice, said China would protect the “interests of the persons concerned during the process”.

“Having given all these Canadian and US individuals and companies some concern, there will almost certainly be a downturn in Western economic involvement in China,” Hunt said.

US issues China travel warning about ‘arbitrary’ law enforcement

He said he would not be leaving in the near future as he has siblings in China, and his job demanded his presence for now.

The US Department of State has long used its internet presence to criticise China.

“Abuses included instances of extrajudicial killings, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy incommunicado detention, and denial of due process,” it said in a profile of the People’s Republic.

In a trade dispute between the two countries with the world’s biggest economies, casualties of a kind are piling up in detentions of citizens, lost confidence and damage to economic growth. Photo: AP

Meanwhile, a Canadian citizen living in eastern China said he was not very concerned about the travel warning but admitted that worries had been growing recently that Canada, an ally of the US, had become a soft target in China’s rivalry with the US, and that people may be caught between a rock and a hard place if relations between Beijing and Washington worsened.

“Earlier, people dismissed it [the detentions] saying that the issue is about a political dispute, but now this is rolling on. They are more concerned than before,” said the Canadian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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“Most of the Canadians in China are here for personal development and want to build a professional life in China,” he said. “But people are now concerned for their future in China.

“Many plan to leave because China is not as welcoming to foreigners as it once was, and it’s become a bit tense and many people do not see that changing and in many ways it is getting worse.”