top of page
  • Writer's pictureBJIL

Discourse and/as Power: Examining International Norm Diffusion through “Hostage Diplomacy”

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

About the author: Angela Chen (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a Contributor to Travaux. Her interests center on critical, deconstructive, and decolonial approaches to international law and international relations theories. Angela holds B.A. degrees in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and an M.Sc. degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is a native speaker of Mandarin and proficient in French.

"Huawei Office Building" available here.

Hostage Diplomacy and UNGA Exchanges

On September 24, 2021, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, and the US Department of Justice entered an agreement that allowed Meng to return to China after being on house arrest in Vancouver for charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and wire fraud. Shortly after Meng’s release, China released Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from custody; the Chinese state had arrested and held them as hostages against Meng’s release. They have all returned to their respective home countries as of this writing.

While this episode of high-level “hostage diplomacy” merits lengthy discussion in its own right, this article uses this episode to interrogate the discourses on both sides surrounding hostage diplomacy. Specifically, this article examines the exchanges between Chinese and Canadian representatives at the 76th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where both sides presented their respective countries as loyal advocates of international law. This article then discusses the interplay of international law and power politics, as well as the state of international norm diffusion today. International law is not merely epiphenomenal to great power contestations; rather, it actively shapes the discourses and behavior of states, socializing states into a growing epistemic community. Finally, this article will address the limits and discontents of international norm diffusion, as illustrated by China’s socialization into international law.

In his speeches at the UN General Debate, the Chinese delegate accused Canada of “wantonly disregarding facts and laws.” Meng’s arrest was alleged as a “completely political matter” that had no “basis of law,” meant to suppress the development of Chinese technology. The arrests of Kovrig and Spavor, on the other hand, were “based on laws and facts,” and were therefore of a different nature from Meng’s arrest.

The Canadian delegate’s response described Meng’s arrest as an “application of both Canadian and international law.” The rule of law vitiated every aspect of the Canadian authorities’ treatment of Meng; Meng was said to have thanked the Canadian court and government for “upholding the rule of law.” Kovrig and Spavor, according to the Canadian delegate, did not benefit from a comparable degree of rule of law.

The Politics of International Law and the Law of International Politics

What is intriguing about their exchange is their invocation of the (international) law; the form of such invocation is the same while its content is oppositional. Both sides presented their respective countries as upholding the law and the other side as tarnishing it. In the Chinese delegate’s speech, the positionality of law and politics is also curious: law is framed as discreet and oppositional from politics.

Such framing of the relationality between law and politics carries a realist valence. According to (neo)realism, international life is anarchical and perpetually plagued by power struggles. Institutions such as international law are merely epiphenomenal to international politics, as they only reflect the interests of great powers. Great powers adhere to these institutions because they were the ones that created them in the first place; the institutions therefore necessarily guarantee their interests. From this lens, China’s and Canada’s discourses on upholding international law merely cloak their power-thirsty interests and intentions.

Does this somewhat mechanistic view of state behavior explain the centrality of international law in China’s and Canada’s discourses surrounding “hostage diplomacy”? Not really. Indeed, the (neo)realist view takes state identities and interests as somehow pregiven and stable over time; it also elides the essentially social nature of state interactions. States are socialized and identities can be learned (and unlearned)—as a seminal figure in constructivism, Alexander Wendt argues, “anarchy is what states make of it.”

Socialization and Its Discontents

In the constructivist view, rules and norms such as international law serve to socialize states, shaping state identities and interests. Finnemore and Sikkink famously postulated the process of international norm diffusion and socialization: norm influence consists of three stages, which are “norm emergence,” “norm cascade,” and internalization. Norm entrepreneurs first persuade a “critical mass” of states to embrace new norms; then the norm leaders socialize other states to become norm followers in a process of “norm cascade.” Eventually, norm internalization occurs; norms take on a “taken-for-granted” quality that makes states’ conformity with the norms almost automatic.

For the purpose of argument, we can assume that China has been socialized into international norms to a lesser extent than Canada, as the latter was one of the founding members of the “liberal international order” that gave rise to the prevailing international norms. If so, what does international law’s centrality in China’s discourses on hostage diplomacy suggest about China’s socialization into international law and norms? To answer this question, a further distinction between institutional and normative socialization is needed. David Shambaugh posits that socialization involves two stages: in the first stage (institutional socialization), a state complies with existing norms out of a “conscious, instrumental calculation.” The state adopts international norms not out of its belief in those norms, but because doing so would allow it to reap the benefits of integration into the international community. In the second stage (normative socialization), a state has deeply internalized the norms, and complies with them because the internalization has successfully transformed the state’s identity. In this stage, a “valued-based orientation” has occurred, and the state has gone beyond rational cost-benefit analysis in adhering to international norms.

China has not been completely socialized into international law and norms, institutionally or normatively. The partial success of its institutional socialization is evident in its invocation of international law in the UNGA speech. Nonetheless, the discrepancy between international law’s requirements on sovereign states and China’s practices is manifested in China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy approach, exemplified in its stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The lack of success in socialization, and the limit of normative socialization in particular, stem fundamentally from China’s distinct political culture (despite the reifying, essentializing tendency of the notion “culture”) and its discomfort with Western liberal values.


International norm diffusion and its discontents in the case of China also raise a crucial question: to what extent is international law truly “international”? In its failure to accommodate states with different cultural and historical experiences, international law risks becoming a mere representative of the “Western” experience. Therefore, while examining the mechanisms of international norm diffusion through “hostage diplomacy” has shed some light on the degree of the former’s success, delving more deeply into the limits of international law would open up further insight.



bottom of page