Consular Access and Controversies Surrounding Chinese Dual Nationals

Consular Visits for Chinese Dual Nationals

Consular visits, especially for detained citizens abroad, play a vital role in international diplomacy. So, China’s recent notification to foreign consulates in Hong Kong — that they can’t visit detained individuals if they also hold Chinese nationality — has sparked controversy.

International Agreements on U.S. and China Consular Relations

The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations sets out the rights and responsibilities of consular offices and it states that these officers should not only be allowed to visit their nationals detained abroad, but also communicate with them and assist in arranging legal representation. The 1980 Consular Convention between the United States and China mandates that these visits must be allowed to occur within two days of the consulate’s notification and should be permitted at least once monthly.

Differing US and China Views on Dual Nationality

Despite this agreed-upon framework for consular visits, China and the United States are at odds regarding consular access to U.S.-Chinese dual nationals. China’s Nationality Law explicitly rejects the notion of dual nationality and Chinese nationals who naturalize in a foreign country automatically lose their Chinese nationality.

The United States, on the other hand, does not impede its citizens’ acquisition of foreign citizenship whether by birth, descent, naturalization or other form of acquisition. In response to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ recent reminder that “foreign consular officers shall not be entitled to visit any Chinese nationals detained in” Hong Kong, the U.S. Consulate responded by noting that “when U.S. citizens with other nationalities are detained in the United States, we encourage U.S. officials to provide consular notification and access to those other countries as a matter of courtesy, and we call on Hong Kong officials to do the same.”

Despite this more permissive view, the United States treats Americans in its territory as Americans, period, irrespective of any other nationality they might hold and any “courtesy” local law enforcement may wish to extend. As the U.S. State Department notes, U.S. nationals, including U.S. dual nationals, must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States.” The message is clear: Americans may have additional citizenships, but they leave them at the door when they enter the United States. With that in mind, insisting on consular access to dual nationals who have chosen to enter Chinese territory using Chinese travel documents is a questionable crusade.

Potential Implications and Consequences

China granting U.S. consular officers the right to visit dual nationals would constitute de facto recognition of dual nationality by China. Given that this concept is antithetical to China’s conception of nationality, it is easy to see why granting U.S. consular access to dual citizens is a nonstarter for China.

On the flip side, the United States granting Chinese consular officials in the United States the option of visiting detained Americans, who just happen to have kept their Chinese passport, essentially means giving some Americans more rights than others. Though to be fair, I doubt a visit by a Chinese diplomat will do much to lift the spirits of someone detained in the United States — I have a hard time picturing Vice Consul Wang gathering old magazines to give to the prisoners she is set to visit, as I was encouraged to do when I visited jailed Americans as a U.S. consular official in Guangzhou. Be that as it may, such visits would nonetheless entail privileging some Americans over others, a result that should not be countenanced.

Conclusion: A Clash of Principles

At its core, the disagreement between the U.S. and China on consular access stems from a fundamental clash of principles. China’s non-recognition of dual nationality is central to its conception of sovereignty. Granting the U.S. consular visits to detained dual nationals would inherently undermine this stance. It would confer legitimacy to a concept China adamantly rejects.

Meanwhile, the U.S. views nationality more flexibly, but still prioritizes American interests within its borders. Allowing Chinese consular visits to detained dual citizens in the United States could create different tiers of rights, conflicting with values of equality.

With neither country likely to budge from its core principles, a true compromise or reconciliation seems unlikely. The best near-term outcome may be increased communication between consulates to mutually provide information on detained dual citizens. But a full accord remains unlikely given the clashing perspectives on nationality.

This dual citizenship issue highlights the difficulties in balancing sovereign principles with diplomat courtesies in an interconnected world. As the number of global citizens with multiple nationalities continues to rise, these tensions will only become more common and more pronounced.

Further Reading on U.S.-China Dual Citizenship Issues

For more on the issues that arise with U.S.-China dual nationals, check out The Double-Edged Sword of Dual China-United States Citizenship and Dual Nationality in China and Beyond.

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