China threatens to detain Americans in response to crackdown on military-affiliated researchers

Foreign Affairs

If the U.S. continues its prosecutions of Chinese nationals for allegedly hiding their military affiliations, Beijing may begin to detain Americans, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Throughout 2020, the U.S. government has been increasing its scrutiny of a specific subset of Chinese nationals that it believes pose a heightened risk of espionage: those with concealed links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

  • In January, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an indictment of Yanqing Ye, a researcher at Harvard University, alleging that Ye had “lied about her ongoing military service.” At the same time, the FBI added her to its most-wanted list, believing that she had likely already fled to China.
  • In May, President Trump signed a declaration saying that graduate students with links to “military-civil fusion” in China could soon lose their visas, and last month, the U.S. State Department confirmed that over 1,000 students had been kicked out.
  • “The FBI since June has interviewed some 50 researchers in 30 cities that they believe are in the Chinese military,” the Wall Street Journal reported on August 25.
  • In July, the Justice Department indicted four Chinese nationals, all for “lying about their work for China’s People’s Liberation Army.” One of these suspects, Tang Juan, had sought refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for a month before being arrested and released on bail.
  • July is also when the U.S. ordered the closing of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, in a major escalation of U.S.-China tensions. The WSJ August 25 report revealed that when the U.S. ordered this closure, it simultaneously told China to “remove all Chinese military researchers now in the U.S.”

China is warning of retaliatory detentions if the U.S. continues its prosecution of the military-affiliated scholars that it has under arrest, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • The warnings began after the Tang Juan case in July, the WSJ says, and though U.S. officials “say they expected China to make good on the threat,” it didn’t, and “the FBI arrested Ms. Tang in July when she left the consulate grounds.”
  • The New York Times and Axios have both confirmed the news that Beijing has threatened detentions of Americans in China.

Not an empty threat

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 accused (English, Chinese) the U.S. of “acting as the guilty party blaming the innocent,” and added, “This is new McCarthyism!” However, he did not deny that China had made the threat to detain Americans in retaliation for prosecutions of Chinese scholars.

The threat is real: China has a long history of arbitrarily detaining foreigners as a means of extracting concessions. Anatol Klass wrote for SupChina that although this tactic used to be remembered as a Mao-era misstep, it is “experiencing a renaissance in Xí Jìnpíng 习近平’s China,” with the revenge detentions and recent indictments of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the most prominent but by no means only examples.

The U.S. State Department travel advisory for China, updated September 14, urges Americans to “reconsider travel,” partially due to “arbitrary detention and exit bans.” For many Americans, especially those with research backgrounds, that is probably wise advice for the time being.