But lawmakers and family members of US citizens wrongfully detained in China say Sullivan and the State Department are pursuing an approach to prisoner release that risks failure because it relies on silent engagement. They urge the Biden administration to play diplomatic hardball by negotiating the release of American prisoners from Beijing through prisoner swaps or explicitly tying their freedom to progress on key bilateral issues, including tariffs and trade.
“I want them to do whatever it takes [even] whether to trade it for Chinese nationals that we have here,” said Katherine Swidan, mother of Mark Swidan, a Texan who has been detained in China for more than nine years. “I say [Biden] can’t send Marines…but stop trade don’t give [China] no wiggle room on tariffs or trade until they release Mark.
Swidan is one of three Americans imprisoned in China, including Kai Li and David Lin, whom the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) designates as “wrongful detainees.” The designation authorizes Roger D. Carstens, the special envoy, to request their release. But family members and prisoner release advocates say SPEHA is facing a brick wall in Beijing and that Swidan, Li and Lin are suffering from serious health problems caused by their imprisonment.
“[Carstens] and his team work very hard [but] they are not making any progress,” said John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation. “What I see is growing frustration on the part of the administration with the complete failure on the part of the Chinese to respond – [there’s] no progress on any of these cases.
Neither Carstens’ office, the National Security Council, nor the White House responded to POLITICO’s requests for comment on Sullivan’s prisoner release initiative or the number of Americans deemed unfairly detained in China. This is a subject that the Chinese government also wants to avoid. Yang’s reading of his meeting with Sullivan made no mention of the initiative, and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment.
But the State Department recognizes that there is a problem. It adjusted its China travel advisory in April to a level three “reconsider travel” classification due to “arbitrary application of local laws”. And relatives of unjustly imprisoned Americans and their defenders fear that Chinese authorities are intentionally targeting American citizens, making them geopolitical pawns.
“There are struggling Americans in China just because they are Americans,” Kamm said. “It’s all part of the frayed fabric of US-China relations – they’re going after our people.”
Swidan’s fate reflects the perils of China’s justice system. Chinese police arrested him in November 2012 for allegedly manufacturing and trafficking narcotics despite what Dui Hua described as a lack of substantial evidence. A court in Guangdong province – after a 5.5-year trial – sentenced Swidan to death with a two-year reprieve in January 2020.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Swidan a victim of arbitrary detention in February 2020. It called for his release and the right to claim “compensation and other reparations”. China ignored the decision.
Swidan’s mother complains that neither Sullivan nor Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, is doing enough. In recent phone calls, she said, they indicated they were concerned about her son’s imprisonment, but did not intend to drastically change policy to secure his release. She insists it’s a failed strategy of softball diplomatic engagement.
“I’m tired of [govt officials] try to calm me down. I’m sick of ‘Yes, he’s on our radar’ [or] “Yeah, he’s top of our list,” Swidan said. “I hear a lot of rhetoric. I don’t see any results.
The State Department insists it is working hard to bring Mark Swidan home. “Ambassador Burns has reached out to Ms. Swidan to listen to her concerns and assure her that seeking the release of her son is a department priority,” a State Department spokesperson told POLITICO in a statement. “He pledged to continue to raise his son’s case directly with senior PRC officials, as he did during his very first meeting with the PRC government in April.
Burns will travel to Swidan as soon as the Chinese government’s Covid restrictions allow it and is pushing for him to have access to an “independent doctor (outside prison) to assess his physical well-being”, the spokesman said. the state.
Harrison Li feels a similar frustration. Her father, Kai Li, was arrested in September 2016 by the Shanghai State Security Bureau and sentenced to 10 years in prison in July 2018 for allegedly spying for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The UN declared Kai Li a victim of arbitrary detention in 2021 and called his imprisonment “political and not criminal… [and] at least in part attributable to his status as a foreign national of Chinese descent”.
Li said on a recent call, Sullivan was unable to say what he would do differently to bring his father home.
“The call was quite disappointing because I couldn’t really get any concrete promises,” Li said. of the meeting “because he felt he needed [and] if there was actually any substantial meat behind those priorities.
“The State Department has no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens abroad,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We will continue to advocate for the interests of American citizens wrongfully detained in the PRC and work to support their families.”
Lawmakers have for years been demanding a better strategy to release US citizens wrongfully detained in China. A bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), wrote to President Donald Trump in December 2020 urging his administration to be “stubborn advocates” for Americans behind bars in China. A bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers sent a joint letter to Biden in November asking him to redouble his efforts to free Kai Li.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-California) was the lead author of a bipartisan letter in March urging Biden to “actively engagewith Chinese President Xi Jinping to win David Lin’s freedom. And last month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a scathing letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing the administration of an “unacceptable lack of urgency” in Swiden’s release request and demanding to know the “specific measures” taken to release him.
This congressional skepticism reflects a belief among advocates for those wrongfully detained in China that Beijing’s economic influence outweighs the willingness of governments to aggressively seek the release of their imprisoned citizens.
“I see enormous cowardice and weakness in the behavior of Western governments towards China, rooted in their wanting to put commercial ties, corporate interests and contracts ahead of the interests of individual citizens who have been innocently locked up in Chinese prisons,” said Peter Humphrey, a former victim of arbitrary detention in China who works to free foreign citizens who unjustly end up in prison there. “This is an ongoing problem with the US government’s handling of its prisoners overseas, particularly in China.”
Humphrey is helping the families of several US citizens whom he says the Chinese justice system has wrongfully imprisoned. They include David McMahon, a teacher who has been jailed since 2013 on what he believes is a false pedophilia charge, and Nelson Wells Jr., who has been jailed since 2014 on what Humphrey calls false drug trafficking charges.
“The way to get people out is probably not just by making noise. … One way for Americans to get some people back from China would be to hand over hot bodies,” Humphrey said.
These “hot bodies” mean exchanges of prisoners. SPEHA negotiated Russia’s release of US citizen Trevor Reed in April in exchange for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko. The Chinese government showed its willingness to carry out prisoner swaps in September by responding to the release of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou from Canadian custody by releasing arbitrarily detained Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Russian media suggested last month that the United States could affect the release of basketball star Brittney Griner, jailed in Russia for drug possession since February, by trading her for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
This approach resonates with Harrison Li, who says the US government’s current commitment to freeing his father is going nowhere. “One tool that has been used successfully in other countries is the prisoner trade [and] something along these lines should be offered to the Chinese government,” Li said.
But SPEHA’s Carstens warned that making prisoner swaps a default method of freeing US citizens could backfire by encouraging abuse. “My job is to start getting creative – what else can we do to solve this problem without making any direct concessions?” Carstens told CBS 60 Minutes on June 12. “If there’s a way to get someone out that doesn’t involve a trade, [that’s] much better.
Lin’s daughter, Alice, echoes Carstens’ concern. “If you give in to a terrorist’s request, it puts more Americans at risk because now they find out, ‘Oh, here’s an easy way to get funded, I just gotta go capture more Americans,'” said Alice Lin.
But Alice Lin and other relatives of Americans wrongfully detained in China say creative approaches to freeing their loved ones are long overdue.
“The U.S. government needs to take a broader view and realize that if it continues to allow the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain ordinary Americans who don’t have high-level political connections or economic clout, it will ultimately be untenable. to do business in China,” he added. Li said.
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