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

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Chinese government officials are warning their U.S. counterparts that 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 a 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 hiding their information from U.S. immigration officials. active service status with the People’s Liberation Army, 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 moves their governments consider to be baseless, or in some cases diplomatic retaliation, a tactic many political circles in Washington have called diplomacy hostage. 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.

Researchers in the spotlight

A State Department spokesperson declined to respond to threats of alleged retaliation from China for US arrests of Chinese military scholars, saying: We warn US citizens of trade disputes, court orders to pay settlement or government investigations into criminal and civil matters may result in an exit ban that will prohibit your departure from 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 bargaining power. on foreign governments.

John Demers, head of the Department of Justice’s national security division, said: We know the Chinese government has, in other cases, detained Americans, Canadians and others without a legal basis for exercising retaliate against legal prosecutions 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 nations, it must respect the state. right 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.

The relationship between the United States and China has declined at an alarming rate in recent weeks. WSJs Gerald F. Seib highlights three reasons why ties between the two countries will be a major topic of debate as Election Day approaches. Photo: Aly Song / Reuters

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

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

Ambassador Cong Peiwu has warned Canada to stop granting asylum to democracy activists from China’s Hong Kong territory, saying Canada should support the implementation in Beijing of a new national security law that many Western countries deem draconian, if he is concerned about the health and safety of the 300,000 Canadians who live 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’s your interpretation.

The United States has set tariffs on Chinese imports, restricted Chinese companies for national security reasons, and sought to counter the build-up of Beijing’s military 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.

Staff from the Chinese consulate in Houston arrived in Beijing on August 17 after the United States ordered the consulate closed. Photo: Yue Yuewei / Zuma Press

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 Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. .

The recent actions taken by the DOJ represent a total assault on one of China’s most revered institutions, the PLA, Singleton said. It’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 one of the people familiar with the matter. 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 released on bail after pleading not guilty to visa fraud charges, said in a statement that her investigations revealed nothing, even remotely, similar to any claim the Chinese government was seeking. to interfere in Dr. Tangs’ 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 OKeeffe at [email protected] and to Aruna Viswanatha at [email protected]

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