With Denmark, China Tests the Reach of Its Lawfare into Democracies



Jonas Parello-Plesner | GMF

A decade ago, democratic governments wrangled with China over the mistreatment of dissidents such as the late Nobel Peace prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo, inside the country. Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is extending its long authoritarian arm and misusing legal principles, so-called lawfare, far beyond its borders and into democracies around the world.  

In Denmark, two members of parliament, Uffe Elbæk and Katarina Ammitzbøll, as well as two civil society activists, have been menaced with legal proceedings by China. Their supposed transgression? In November, they invited Ted Hui, an elected member of the Hong Kong Legislative assembly to the country for meetings. From Denmark, he then continued on to a life in exile in the United Kingdom.

Hui was facing protest-related charges in Hong Kong as part of the crackdown on the democratic opposition. The Danish citizens are targeted as having helped him evade legal proceedings in the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic. Regina Ip, a local lawmaker, undoubtedly trying to please the new CCP-controlled Hong Kong, has called for the extradition and prosecution of the Danish parliamentarians. During the last month, Denmark’s domestic intelligence services alerted the four Danes to the danger of travelling to and extradition from third countries with which Hong Kong or China has relevant agreements.

When China’s government introduced the National Security Law in Hong Kong last year, many legal observers shuddered at the extraterritorial reach of its Article 38, which could extend to indicting individuals worldwide for what the authorities might label as abetting secession in Hong Kong. The Danish case seems to be an attempt by the CCP to explore how far it can take this new version of lawfare against its perceived domestic and foreign enemies. Still, no formal extradition request has been made, although the Chinese embassy has gone as far as asking Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for legal assistance on the matter.

Such cases carry a potential chilling effect on freedom of speech in democracies. Increasingly, anyone researching or commenting on China—like myself, who also met with Ted Hui in Copenhagen last year—know that they cannot travel to the country any longer without fearing arbitrary detention. I am also now on the Chinese sanctions list too through my workplace, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation.

China’s lawfare against democracies and their citizens is also on display currently in the city of Dandong with the show-trials against two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whose guilt on spurious charges seem predetermined by the CCP. The real reason for their imprisonment is retaliation for the detention of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada on an extradition claim from the United States for sanctions violations.

Similarly, last week, the EU’s human rights sanctions on Chinese individuals for human right abuses in Xinjiang was reciprocated with Chinese sanctions on European parliamentarians, China researchers, and democracy organizations such as the Alliance of Democracies Foundation. As Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has remarked, “While we sanction abuses of human rights, Beijing sanctions democracy. We cannot accept this.”

The democratic world needs to stand united and respond to these new lawfare techniques by China. There is no easy tit for tat possible. Democracies cannot resort to similar acts of hostage diplomacy. That would debase their systems of rule of law.

As one response, Canada has kickstarted a multilateral initiative against arbitrary detention, but it still lacks enforcement mechanisms to change China’s calculus. In another good initiative, diplomats from other democracies such as the members of the EU and the United States showed up outside of the trials in Dandong to demonstrate solidarity with Kovrig and Spavor. This gesture would have been even stronger if more representatives of Asian democracies had also taken part. 

The Biden’ administration is planning a Global Summit of Democracy later this year. Biden describes our current period as defined by the competition between autocracy and democracy. Coming to grips with China’s new lawfare techniques is an urgent task for an alliance of democracies.  

To read the original piece from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, please click here

Jonas Parello-Plesner is a non-resident senior fellow in GMF’s Asia program. His research focuses on Asia and China and relations with EU and the United States. Parello-Plesner has also worked at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) as a Senior Policy Fellow with a focus on European-Chinese relations. He served as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark’s Senior Advisor on China and North East Asia from 2005-2009 and has provided testimony on Chinese investments in Europe to the U.S. Congress and European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committees. His co-authored book, China’s Strong Arm: Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad, was published in 2015 by IISS/Routledge and launched at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.