On Wednesday, Reuters reported that from here on out, Chinese diplomats in the US are being required to give “advance notice” if they plan to meet with state, local and municipal officials.
That was according to senior State department personnel, who also said the same would apply to any conversations with educational and research institutions.
It was the latest evidence that the “trade” war has morphed into a full-on culture clash. Over the summer, the US stepped up review and surveillance of foreign students and researchers. In May, for example, Emory fired Li Xiaojiang and his wife, Li Shihua, two Chinese-American genetics professors who, according to the university, “failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China”.
“This action is a response to what the PRC government does to limit the interaction our diplomats can have in China with Chinese stakeholders”, a State Department official told Reuters this week, commenting on the new requirements for Beijing’s diplomats.
Fast forward to Thursday, and the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing has detained Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen, a pair of American citizens who run “China Horizons”, a business in the country teaching English.
They were arrested (let’s just call it what it is) in Jiangsu late last month “on suspicion of organizing others to cross the border”, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, at a regular briefing.
Harlan and Petersen’s families are looking to raise money to secure adequate legal representation in a bid to free them. At the risk of being uncouth – good luck with that latter effort. They are now literal hostages in Beijing’s ongoing tit-for-tat with Washington.
But this isn’t just confined to the burgeoning Sino-US cold war. Harlan and Petersen aren’t alone when it comes to teachers being subjected to scrutiny in China. Chinese police in Jiangsu arrested 19 people in July on drug charges, for example, 16 of whom were foreign teachers and students.
“According to police in the city of Xuzhou, the detainees included seven foreign teachers employed by an education agency. Nine others were foreign students”, Xinhua said in July, adding that “all 19 people involved in the case failed drug tests”.
There was another incident in August, when Mayorga Heredia Daniel Oswaldo, a Colombian national teaching kindergarten in Shandong, was sentenced to a half-decade in prison for “molesting [a] girl during nap time in January”. He’ll be deported once he’s done sitting in a Chinese jail for five years, according to the venerable Laoshan District People’s Court.
There’s a Gofundme page for Petersen, which has raised around $13,000 out of a $50,000 goal. The page includes a lengthy account of what happened. Here’s an excerpt:
On September 27th or there about, Chinese Police took Alyssa Petersen, She was not heard from for two weeks, We (Her family) had to go to the state department to locate her. They were able to find her, Alyssa is being held in a Jail in Zhenjiang, China, We received information that she is doing okay, She wakes up when told, she goes to sleep when told. She spends her day in a Jail Cell or walking in a circle counting steps. She cannot have any contact with anyone outside of a Consulate Officer who can visit once a month and a Lawyer.
Alyssa is the Director of a company called China Horizons, She helps College students acquire a visa to teach English at Chinese schools. Alyssa first went to China as a teacher 10 years ago, she now is involved with training the teachers while in China, working with the different schools the students teach at, and also teaching at their School in Zhenjiang. When she is not in China she runs their Home Office in Rexburg Idaho and attends BYU-Idaho.
As Petersen’s family notes, “the investigation could take months, even years without proper legal representation”.
The sad reality is that the “investigation” would probably take months or years even if the family raised $50 million for her representation, because odds are, this isn’t about any actual crimes, but rather a manifestation of Beijing’s ongoing efforts to project leverage in the standoff with the US. Late last year, China detained two Canadians in a thinly-veiled swipe at Canada after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped in Vancouver at the request of the Trump administration.
Over the past two weeks, the US has accused China of human rights violations on three occasions. Ahead of the latest round of trade talks, the Trump administration blacklisted surveillance colossus Hikvision and more than two-dozen Chinese public security bureaus and companies, citing Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs. The next day, Trump imposed a travel ban, citing the same human rights concerns. Earlier this week, House lawmakers passed several bills in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, prompting an angry response from the Mainland.
If you ask Geng Shuang, he can’t imagine why anyone would think any of this has anything to do with Trump’s spiraling trade war, though. “[I don’t] see how” the arrests could be related “to trade tensions”, he said Thursday.
“We have found legal representation for Alyssa. We are told she is doing well”, the latest update to the Gofundme page for Petersen reads. “We don’t and won’t know many details [but] we do know that this is going to be a lengthy process”, her family laments.