Chinese government officials are warning their American counterparts they may detain U.S. nationals in China in response to the Justice Department’s prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Chinese officials have issued the warnings to U.S. government representatives repeatedly and through multiple channels, the people said, including through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The Chinese message, the people said, has been blunt: The U.S. should drop prosecutions of the Chinese scholars in American courts, or Americans in China might find themselves in violation of Chinese law.
China started issuing the warning this summer after the U.S. began arresting a series of Chinese scientists, who were visiting American universities to conduct research, and charged them with concealing from U.S. immigration authorities their active duty statuses with the People’s Liberation Army, the people said.
The arrests were the subject of a Wall Street Journal article that also reported U.S. allegations that Chinese diplomats were coordinating activities with the researchers, and described that as a factor in ordering China to close its Houston consulate in July and remove the remaining military scientists from the country.
Chinese authorities have on occasion detained foreign nationals in moves seen by their governments as baseless, or in some instances as diplomatic retaliation, a tactic that many in Washington policy circles have referred to as “hostage diplomacy.” China has denied U.S. citizens permission to exit from the country, and arrested, charged or sentenced Canadian, Australian and Swedish citizens on what officials from those governments have said are bogus allegations.
Scholars in the Spotlight
A State Department spokesman declined to address China’s alleged threats to retaliate for the U.S. arrests of Chinese military scholars, saying: “We warn U.S. citizens that business disputes, court orders to pay a settlement, or government investigations into both criminal and civil issues may result in an exit ban which will prohibit your departure from China until the issue is resolved.”
In a September travel advisory, the department recommended Americans avoid China travel for a number of reasons, including a warning that the Chinese government detains other countries’ citizens “to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”
John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said: “We are aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian and other individuals without legal basis to retaliate against lawful prosecutions and to exert pressure on their governments, with a callous disregard of the individuals involved.”
Mr. Demers declined to comment on the specifics of the alleged Chinese threats made in conjunction with the U.S. cases against the Chinese researchers but added: “If China wants to be seen as one of the world’s leading nations, it should respect the rule of law and stop taking hostages.”
Neither the Chinese Embassy in Washington nor China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to requests for comment. Beijing objects to the use of the term “hostage diplomacy” by U.S., Canadian and other officials and says it is only implementing its laws and acting to protect national security.
Chinese prosecutors in June indicted two Canadian citizens on espionage charges, advancing a pair of cases widely seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of a prominent Chinese executive at Huawei Technologies Co. in conjunction with a U.S. extradition request.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly criticized the arrests. On Thursday, China’s ambassador to Canada hit back at Mr. Trudeau at 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 the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, saying Canada should support Beijing’s implementation of a new national security law that many Western countries condemn as draconian, if it is concerned about the “health and safety” of 300,000 Canadians who live in the former British colony, according to a recording of the event the embassy posted online.
Asked by a journalist if he was issuing a threat, Mr. Cong replied: “That is your interpretation.”
The U.S. has affixed tariffs on Chinese imports, restricted Chinese corporations over national security concerns, and sought to counter Beijing’s military buildup in the South China Sea. But former U.S. national security officials say the Justice Department’s cases against the military-affiliated researchers, who were arrested as they had prepared to leave the country, represented a major, public embarrassment for China in a way that other U.S. actions targeting China haven’t.
“Historically, these dust-ups were resolved behind closed doors to contain the diplomatic fallout and allow China to save face,” said Craig Singleton, a former U.S. national security official who is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank.
“DOJ’s recent moves represent a full-on assault of one of China’s most revered institutions, the PLA,” Mr. Singleton said. “It’s a real game-changer that could carry significant risk for both sides.”
China began conveying the warnings after one of the Chinese military-affiliated scientists took up residence in China’s San Francisco consulate for a month after being questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in June, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. Chinese officials told their U.S. counterparts they would detain an American in China if the U.S. didn’t allow the researcher, Tang Juan, to leave the consulate and return to China.
U.S. officials say they expected China to make good on the threat, but it didn’t, and the FBI arrested Ms. Tang in July when she left the consulate grounds.
A lawyer for Ms. Tang, who is out on bail after pleading not guilty to visa fraud charges, said in a statement that his “inquiries reveal nothing even remotely similar to any assertion that the Chinese government sought to interfere in Dr. Tang’s case.”
The lawyer, Malcolm Segal, added: “The Chinese government has played no role whatsoever in the case itself or in her defense, nor do I ever expect them to do so.”
In addition to Ms. Tang, four other researchers recently accused of hiding their ties to the Chinese military have pleaded not guilty to similar charges. Two are scheduled to face trial next month.
—Kim Mackrael contributed to this article.
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