China Threatens to Detain Americans if U.S. Prosecutes Chinese Scholars

WASHINGTON – Chinese officials have told the Trump administration that security officials in China could potentially arrest American citizens if the Justice Department continues to prosecute arrested scholars who are members of the Chinese military.

Chinese officials carried the messages starting this summer when the Justice Department stepped up efforts to arrest and prosecute the scholars, mainly with false information on their visa applications, American officials said. US law enforcement officials say at least five Chinese scientists arrested in the past few months have failed to disclose their military affiliation on visa applications and may have attempted industrial espionage in research centers.

American officials said they thought the Chinese officials were serious about the threats. The State Department repeated travel warnings, they said. Western officials and human rights activists have said for years that Chinese police and other security agencies are making arbitrary detentions.

The threats are another notable escalation in tensions between the United States and China that have been mounting for years and have risen sharply since the coronavirus pandemic in central China last winter.

However, some analysts in Washington and Beijing say the Chinese government is trying to avoid serious provocations against the United States ahead of the November elections. And some Chinese officials want to cool the temperature on U.S.-China relations, regardless of whether President Trump wins another term or Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic challenger and former Vice President, takes over the White House.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether Chinese officials had warned of plans to arrest American citizens in retaliation for persecuting Chinese scholars. The threats were previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“We recognize that in other cases the Chinese government has illegally arrested Americans, Canada and others in revenge against lawful prosecutions and pressure on their governments with persistent disregard for those involved,” said John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said in a statement. “If China is to be seen as one of the leading nations in the world, it should respect the rule of law and stop taking hostages.”

On Sunday, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on Twitter that the detention of Chinese scholars in the United States on allegations of espionage was “not good” for the “safety of some” US citizens in China. “

“Does Washington need to be warned?” he wrote. “It’s common sense. In my view, hegemony has made or pretended to be stupid to some US elites. “

In recent years, the Justice Department has been scrutinizing the work of Chinese researchers at American universities and other academic institutions. US officials also criticized the Chinese government’s programs to recruit scientific and technical experts. Mr. Demers and other US officials have long said that Beijing uses a wide range of tools to gather information in American research centers.

The Trump administration announced in late May that it would be banning Chinese college or higher students who had ties to some military institutions from entering the United States.

In late July, the State Department ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, saying it was a research theft center in the United States. Justice Department officials said that Chinese officials on other missions had also participated in industrial and scientific espionage and that the closure should deter Beijing from continuing operations. At the same time, US authorities also attempted to arrest a Chinese student or researcher, Tang Juan, who was hiding in the San Francisco Consulate after questioning by the FBI

The FBI arrested Ms. Tang on July 23rd, accusing her of hiding her military affiliation. She pleaded not guilty of visa fraud and false testimony.

The Chinese government has denied allegations that members of its military are in the United States for scientific and industrial espionage.

State Department officials declined to discuss the recent threats from the detention of Americans by Chinese officials. But for months, department officials have been emphasizing tough measures by Chinese security agencies against Americans. On September 14, the department updated travel warnings for mainland China and Hong Kong, saying Americans should “reconsider” travel because of Covid-19 and the risk posed by “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

In June, Chinese officials charged two Canadians – Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman – of espionage. Security officers arrested the two men 18 months earlier. Canadian and American officials widely believe the men are being held on a Justice Department case against Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese tech company Huawei, who was arrested in Canada in December 2018 and potentially extradited to the United States.

Last year, Chinese security officials prevented a Koch Industries manager from leaving China for a few days. In a hotel lobby in Beijing, officials tried to take a former US diplomat for questioning. He was in China to attend an artificial intelligence forum that he helped organize. The American embassy in Beijing intervened and the Chinese officers withdrew.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also denounced the practice of Chinese officials issuing “travel bans” or refusing to leave foreign nationals, often as a means of coercion in litigation or business disputes.

Katie Benner and Eric Schmitt contributed to the coverage.