China warns US it could detain Americans in response to lawsuits against Chinese academics

Chinese government officials are warning their U.S. counterparts they could detain U.S. nationals in China in response to the Justice Department’s lawsuits against academics affiliated with the Chinese military, people familiar with the matter said.

Chinese officials have issued warnings to U.S. government officials repeatedly and through multiple channels, people said, including through the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese message, people said, has been blunt: The United States should drop the lawsuits against Chinese academics in US courts, or Americans in China could find themselves in violation of Chinese law.

China began issuing the warning this summer after the United States began arresting a series of Chinese scientists, who were visiting American universities to conduct research, and accused them of concealing their information from U.S. immigration officials. active service status with the People’s Liberation Army, the people said.

The arrests were the subject of a Wall Street Journal article which also reported on US allegations that Chinese diplomats were coordinating their activities with researchers, and described this as a factor in ordering China to shut down its Houston consulate in July and to withdraw the remaining military scientists from the territory. country.

Chinese authorities have at times arrested foreign nationals in actions their governments consider to be baseless, or in some cases diplomatic retaliation, a tactic many political circles in Washington have called “hostage diplomacy.” China has denied U.S. citizens permission to leave the country and has arrested, charged or convicted Canadian, Australian and Swedish citizens on what those government officials have called false allegations.

A State Department spokesperson declined to respond to threats of retaliation from China for US arrests of Chinese military scholars, saying, “We are warning US citizens that trade disputes, court orders pay settlement or government investigations into criminal and civil matters could result. in an exit ban that will prohibit your leaving China until the issue is resolved. “

In a September travel advisory, the ministry recommended Americans avoid traveling to China for a number of reasons, including a warning that the Chinese government was detaining citizens of other countries “to gain power of negotiation on foreign governments ”.

John Demers, head of the Department of Justice’s national security division, said: “We are aware that the Chinese government has, in other cases, detained Americans, Canadians and others without a legal basis. to retaliate against legal proceedings and put pressure on their governments. , with callous disregard for those involved.

Mr Demers declined to comment on details of alleged Chinese threats in US affairs against Chinese researchers, but added, “If China is to be considered one of the world’s leading countries, it should respect the rule of law. and stop taking hostages.

Neither the Chinese Embassy in Washington nor the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to requests for comment. Beijing opposes the use of the term “hostage diplomacy” by US, Canadian and other officials and says it is only enforcing its laws and acting to protect national security.

Staff from the Chinese consulate in Houston arrived in Beijing on August 17 after the United States ordered the consulate closed.


Yue Yuewei / Zuma Press

In June, Chinese prosecutors indicted two Canadian citizens with espionage charges, advancing two cases widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a prominent Chinese executive from Huawei Technologies Co. in conjunction with a request American extradition.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly criticized the arrests. On Thursday, the Chinese ambassador to Canada replied to Trudeau during a media event marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Ambassador Cong Peiwu warned Canada to stop granting asylum to democracy activists from China’s Hong Kong territory, saying Canada should support Beijing’s implementation of a new national security law that many Western countries deem draconian, if it is concerned about health and safety. Of the 300,000 Canadians living in the former British colony, according to a recording of the event posted online by the Embassy.

Asked by a reporter if he made a threat, Mr. Cong replied, “That is your interpretation.”

The United States has set tariffs on Chinese imports, restricted Chinese companies for national security reasons, and sought to counter Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea. But former U.S. national security officials say the Justice Department’s cases against military-affiliated researchers, who were arrested as they prepared to leave the country, posed a major public embarrassment to the U.S. China in a way that other US actions targeting China do not. .

“Historically, this dust has been resolved behind closed doors to contain diplomatic fallout and allow China to save face,” said Craig Singleton, a former US national security official who is now a member of the Defense Foundation. of democracies, a conservative. think tank.

“The recent actions taken by the DOJ represent a total attack on one of China’s most revered institutions, the PLA,” Singleton said. “He’s a real game changer that could involve significant risks for both parties.”

China began passing on the warnings after one of the scientists affiliated with the Chinese military took up residence at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for a month after being questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in June, according to the one of the people close to the file. Chinese officials have told their American counterparts that they will detain an American in China if the United States does not allow the researcher, Tang Juan, to leave the consulate and return to China.

U.S. officials say they expected China to respond to the threat, but it didn’t, and the FBI arrested Ms. Tang in July when she left the consulate.

An attorney for Ms. Tang, who is being released on bail after pleading not guilty to visa fraud charges, said in a statement that her “investigations reveal nothing, even remotely, similar to any claim that the Chinese government sought to interfere in Dr. Tang’s case. “

Lawyer Malcolm Segal added, “The Chinese government has played no role in the case itself or in its defense, and I never expect them to.

In addition to Ms. Tang, four other researchers recently accused of hiding their links with the Chinese military have pleaded not guilty to similar charges. Two are due to be tried next month.

Write to Kate O’Keeffe at and Aruna Viswanatha at

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