Chinese President Taken Hostage by Tibetans at G20 Summit: What If?

Last week’s public management class was about crisis management, and I always start with a simulation. The scenario I came up with this year involved a high-level hostage-taking at the upcoming G20 summit in Toronto. Somehow, a group called the Tibetan Liberation Organization takes President Hu of China hostage in his hotel suite.

Students were asked to play the role of Prime Minister Harper, receiving a 3 a.m. call from Toronto Police Chief William Blair, informing him that shots were heard and that the Tibetans have taken President Hu hostage. The Tibetans are planning to release a list of demands and, if the demands are not met, they threaten to harm Hu. Say you’re the Prime Minister, what do you do?

Obviously, this scenario is most unlikely. First, we can be sure the Canadian Government will have the tightest possible security in place at the G20 summit. (When the 1988 G-7 summit was held in Toronto, from the street I happened to see Margaret Thatcher emerging from the King Edward, where she was staying. I doubt the people will get this close to the leaders this time.) Second, the hallmark of Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination has been non-violence, so the “Tibetan Liberation Organization” is a pure fiction. But, if you grant me these assumptions, then – as my students confirmed – you can have a stimulating discussion about how to react.

Here are some of the ideas that came out of the discussion.

First, get the facts. The simulation was purposely vague. To manage the crisis we need to know as much as possible about the situation in President Hu’s hotel suite. What is its layout? How many Tibetans? Armed with what? Who are the hostages? What are the demands? And what are the Tibetans threatening to do?

Second, recognize that this is not about Canada, but rather part of the conflict between the Chinese Government and the Tibetan resistance movement. Both the Tibetans and the Chinese must be contacted. On the Tibetan side, the obvious interlocutor is the Dalai Lama, and students quickly suggested inviting him to Toronto.

Third, recognize that, as in all hostage takings, there is a fundamental choice between using force to free the hostages and negotiating with the hostage takers. The history of hostage takings includes instances when force was used and most of the hostages were freed unharmed (for example, Entebbe) and instances where the hostages died (Munich). It is far from certain that President Hu could be rescued alive.

The hostage takers want to negotiate with the Chinese Government. But the Chinese Government may not want to negotiate at all. They may take a revolutionary hard line. Tibet is a province of China, period. President Hu, like any cadre, serves the people. If he loses his life serving the people, he died gloriously. And, if he does, the Chinese Government will find his assassins and will ruthlessly suppress the Tibetan Liberation Organization, wherever in the world its members are. They can run, but they can’t hide.

Fourth, while the Canadian Government’s immediate focus would be on resolving the matter rather than assigning blame for this egregious breach of security, ultimately it will be investigated, and it is very likely that heads will roll. The Commissioner of the RCMP and the Director of CSIS – most likely. Toronto’s Chief of Police too. Maybe even the Minister of Public Security.

Fifth and final point. Do contingency planning. The best way to deal with crises is anticipate and avert them. And, ultimately, that’s what this exercise was about.

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