Extraterritoriality at heart of China's call for release of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou

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      China's demands for freedom for a senior Huawei Technologies Co. executive are reminiscent of a great debate in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      That was whether foreigners should be exempted from local laws based on their nationality or where they may be within a country.

      Nowadays, China is claiming that Meng Wanzhou should be exempt from the law of the United States when she's on Canadian soil. This is notwithstanding Canada's extradition treaty with the United States.

      In effect, China is maintaining that Meng should only be subject to China's law, no matter where she is on the planet.

      This concept, known as extraterritoriality, exists within foreign embassies. It's why WikiLeaks Julian Assange has been able to avoid being extradited by seeking asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London.

      Extraterritoriality is also something that resonates in Chinese history.

      It was included in the British Supplementary Treaty of the Brogue in 1843. This agreement flowed from the 1842 Treaty of Nanking following the first Opium War in China.

      That granted British subjects the right to British justice on Chinese soil in ports covered by the treaty. The Brits wouldn't be covered by Chinese law.

      This deeply unequal treaty has been viewed by China as one of the great historical humiliations inflicted by the West.

      The British Supplementary Treaty of the Brogue was followed over the next four years by similar treaties between China and the United States, France, Sweden, and Norway. These too granted extraterritorial rights to their citizens in port cities in China.

      These foreigners enjoyed immunity from the Chinese justice system. 

      The Treaty of Nanking was signed on August 29, 1842—the first of the "unequal treaties" forced upon China by western powers.
      Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University

      In 1871, China and Japan reached an agreement to allow citizens of each country to be subject to their own country's judicial systems on the other's territory. However, China was forced to give this up in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki following the first Sino-Japanese War.

      Extraterritoriality for western powers' citizens in China continued well into the 20th century—leading to debates when China was under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek.

      "Of late years there has been a growing conviction on the part of governments whose nationals enjoy extraterritorial privileges in China that these privileges, which confer on foreigners in China immunity from Chinese jurisdiction, must be given up," Walter H. Mallory wrote in Foreign Affairs in January 1931. "The fact that this conviction is due to a more yielding attitude on the part of foreign chancelleries rather than to very marked improvement in the administration of justice in China makes the inevitable relinquishment no less certain."

      For western powers, extraterritoriality in China came to an end in 1943 in treaties. That's when these legal rights were extinguished.

      It's ironic indeed, then, to read that a Chinese law professor, Liu Deliang, is now asserting that the U.S. request for Canada to arrest Meng "does not comply with international law".

      According to China Daily, Liu has accused the "long-arm jurisdiction" of the U.S. government of being "a typical embodiment of its hegemonic practices".

      The actions of Canada and the United States in connection with Meng's arrest have been called "vile in nature" by China's vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng. He's also threatened consequences for Canada if she isn't released.

      And Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has slammed the U.S. for "extraterritorially" applying its law in Canada against the Huawei executive, saying this is "revolting to the vast majority of normal states and normal people".

      Regardless of the merits of the U.S. legal action, China wants immunity from the Canadian legal system for Meng. In other words, China wants extraterritorial powers for her on Canadian soil.

      For the Chinese, it must seem like their government is seeking just desserts after the comeuppance that their country received from the West in the last two centuries. 

      "History repeats itself," U.S. journalist Sydney J. Harris once wrote, "but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done."