Americans Traveling to China Warned on Risk of Wrongful Detention

New state department advisory comes as police in Hong Kong pursue democratic activists abroad.

AP/Markus Schreiber, file
A Hong Kong activist, Nathan Law, center, takes part in a protest during the visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Berlin, Germany, September 1, 2020. AP/Markus Schreiber, file

The Department of State recommended that Americans reconsider traveling to China because of arbitrary law enforcement and exit bans and the risk of wrongful detentions.

The unusual advisory came after Chinese authorities sentenced a 78-year-old American citizen to life in prison on spying charges. John Shing-Wan Leung, who also holds permanent residency in Hong Kong, was sentenced in May. 

The warning also followed the passage last week of a sweeping Foreign Relations Law that threatens countermeasures against those seen as harming China’s interests. China also recently passed a broadly written counterespionage law that has sent a chill through the foreign business community, with offices being raided, as well as a law to sanction foreign critics.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including issuing exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, without fair and transparent process under the law,” the American advisory said.

“U.S. citizens traveling or residing in the PRC may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime,” it warned.

The advisory also said that Chinese authorities “appear to have broad discretion to deem a wide range of documents, data, statistics, or materials as state secrets and to detain and prosecute foreign nationals for alleged espionage.”

It listed a wide range of potential offenses from taking part in demonstrations to sending electronic messages critical of Chinese policies or even simply conducting research into areas deemed sensitive.

Exit bans could be used to compel individuals to participate in Chinese government investigations, pressure family members to return from abroad, resolve civil disputes in favor of Chinese citizens, and “gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments,” the advisory said.

Similar advisories were issued for the semi-autonomous Chinese regions of Hong Kong and Macao. They were dated Friday and emailed to journalists on Monday.

Washington had issued similar advisories to its citizens in the past, but those in recent years had mainly warned of the dangers of being caught in strict and lengthy lockdowns while Communist China closed its borders for three years under its draconian “zero-Covid” policy.

Beijing generally responds angrily to what it considers American efforts to impugn its authoritarian Communist Party-led system. It has issued its own travel advisories concerning America, warning of the dangers of crime, anti-Asian discrimination, and the high cost of emergency medical assistance.

Also on Monday, Hong Kong police accused eight self-exiled pro-democracy activists of violating the territory’s harsh National Security Law and offered rewards of one million Hong Kong dollars ($127,600) each for information leading to their arrests.

The rewards are the first for suspects accused of violating the Beijing-imposed legislation since it took effect in June 2020. It outlaws subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces, and terrorism.

The eight activists are three former pro-democracy lawmakers, Nathan Law, Ted Hui, and Dennis Kwok, lawyer Kevin Yam, unionist Mung Siu-tat, and activists Finn Lau, Anna Kwok, and Elmer Yuen, police announced at a news conference. They are currently living in America, Britain, Canada, and Australia.

The chief superintendent of the police’s National Security Department, Steven Li, said arrest warrants have been issued for the eight under the National Security Law. He acknowledged that police will not be able to arrest them if they remain overseas but urged them to return to Hong Kong and surrender for a reduction in their sentences.

Mr. Li said the new charges and rewards are not intended to spread fear but are merely “enforcing the law.”

He cited articles of the security law that state that police have extraterritorial jurisdiction, and said they would pursue people overseas who endanger Hong Kong’s national security.

The news conference came less than two weeks after the state-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper issued an editorial stating that the National Security Law applies to people outside Hong Kong, and that China, as a member of Interpol, could request assistance from other countries in arresting fugitives.

A semi-autonomous Chinese city, Hong Kong has come under increasingly tight scrutiny by Beijing following months of political strife in 2019. Authorities have cracked down on dissent with over 260 people, including many pro-democracy figures, arrested under the National Security Law.

Hong Kong’s political system has also undergone a major overhaul to ensure that only “patriots” loyal to Beijing can hold office. The police force said it has evidence that the eight violated the National Security Law.

Mr. Law, who is currently living in Britain, is also accused of foreign collusion and inciting secession for allegedly calling for sanctions and the city’s separation from China in meetings with foreign officials and in open letters, petitions, social media posts, and interviews with the press.

“I ask Hongkongers not to cooperate with any related pursuit or bounty actions. We should not limit ourselves, self-censor, be intimidated, or live in fear,” Mr. Law said in a  tweet.

Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said that Britain “will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the U.K. and overseas.”

In a statement, Mr. Cleverly said: “We call on Beijing to remove the National Security Law and for the Hong Kong authorities to end their targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy.”

The New York Sun

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