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The Chinese government has strongly suggested it may take Americans in the country hostage in retaliation for the U.S. the prosecution of Chinese scholars accused of being affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials familiar with the threat, the paper noted that Chinese government officials have made their threat clear to U.S. government counterparts through multiple diplomatic channels, including via the U.S. Embassy located in Beijing.
“The Chinese message…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,” the WSJ reported.
Beijing began issuing the threat over the summer following the arrests of several visiting Chinese scientists who were conducting research at American universities. Sources told the paper that the arrests stemmed from Chinese scientists allegedly concealing their active-duty military statuses on immigration documents.
The arrests come after the State Department ordered China to close its consulate in Houston in July along with instructions for Beijing to remove all military researchers currently in the United States.
At the time, in a separate report, The Wall Street Journal said the Trump administration had growing concerns that the military-linked post-graduate Chinese scientists were seeking to harvest cutting-edge research into biomedicine and artificial intelligence as part of a broader intelligence-gathering operation led by the PLA.
The paper said that the scientists were being assisted by Chinese diplomats in the U.S. who were helping to conceal the researchers’ association with the Chinese military.
In response to the U.S. closure of Beijing’s Houston consulate, China ordered a U.S. consulate in Chengdu shuttered, the WSJ reported.
On occasion, Chinese authorities have detained foreign nations for various, frivolous reasons, or as a means of diplomatic retaliation — a tactic referred to in Washington, D.C. policy circles as “hostage diplomacy,” the paper said.
Beijing has, in the past, refused to allow U.S. officials to leave the country, and has “arrested, charged or sentenced Canadian, Australian and Swedish citizens” on bogus charges, the paper added.
A spokesman from the State Department would not directly address Beijing’s hostage threat, but told the WSJ, “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.”
However, a travel advisory issued by the department last month warned Americans to avoid traveling to China and Hong Kong “due to COVID-19 and arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
“The PRC government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law,” the advisory also stated.
“In most cases, U.S. citizens only become aware of an exit ban when they attempt to depart the PRC, and there is no reliable mechanism or legal process to find out how long the ban might continue or to contest it in a court of law,” it stated, adding China often uses exit bans “to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”
A Justice Department official also did not directly address China’s hostage threat specifically but did acknowledge Beijing’s past actions in that regard.
“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,” John Demers, who leads the Justice Department’s national security division, told the WSJ.
“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,” he added.
Relations between China and the United States have soured dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Donald Trump had made securing better trade arrangements between both countries a first-term priority, with the administration having signed a Phase One deal with Beijing in January that requires the Chinese to purchase $200 billion worth of American goods over two years.
The president had hoped to get started on Phase 2 before the election, but the pandemic put trade — and building a stronger relationship with China — on hold.
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