• EN
  • 中文
30 Jul 2020

Accused of spying, another victim of China’s hostage diplomacy

The arbitrary detention of the two Canadian Michaels – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – in China on charges of spying following Canada’s detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou back in 2018 on Washington’s extradition request, has made headline news around the world. It is the single biggest international example of the escalation of China’s hostage diplomacy and disregard of the rule of law. And along with the recent passing of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, they have prompted several countries to warn against travel to China for fear of arbitrary detention. 

But few have heard of the case of American businessman Kai Li (pictured), who, like the two Michaels but two years earlier (in 2016) was detained on spying charges and held in incommunicado detention for several months in Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL).

Police apprehended Mr. Li in 2016 when he returned to China on the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death. In 2018, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years for stealing state secrets in a secret trial that US consulate officials were barred from attending. His family still do not know the details of the exact charges, but his lawyer said the “secrets” Mr. Li was accused of stealing was information freely available online in China.

According to his son, Harrison Li: “My father is yet another example of an American victim of Chinese diplomacy. He is currently the only US citizen being held in China on state security charges.” For more examples of China’s hostage diplomacy check out our story here (regularly updated).

Safeguard Defenders recently spoke to Harrison Li by email. He told us that:

  • His father had no access to a lawyer until four months after he was initially detained including his 2.5 months in RSDL;
  • They initially struggled to find a lawyer willing to take on their father’s case because it was so sensitive. Many lawyers were afraid of themselves being persecuted if they agreed to represent him;
  • The Chinese authorities have consistently refused to provide any details on their father’s case to the family on the grounds that it involved “national security”;
  • Consular visits have been suspended since January 2020 because of Covid-19; they are Mr. Li’s only contact with the outside world apart from two 7.5-minute monitored phone calls a month with his family;
  • Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the quality of prison food has worsened and his father’s health has declined, but prison authorities have so far refused to allow his family to send him nutritional supplements.

We have copied the full interview with Harrison Li below. (Please see the family's website, Free Kai Li, for more information on his case and here for how you can help, including signing a letter to Congress on Mr. Li's behalf.)

Q: Your father travelled to China frequently on business and family visits. On any of those occasions, did he meet any trouble or was he harassed at all by the police? 

Not to the best of my knowledge. My father had traveled to China around one to three times a year for over 25 years and never reported any issues with the police.

Q:  What was your initial reaction when you first heard your father was detained?

Complete shock and disbelief. I had just settled into my junior year in college when my mother told me the news over the phone. She prefaced it by warning me that I wouldn't sleep well that night - I certainly did not.

It took a few weeks before I fully internalized the reality that my father was likely in it for the long haul, even though I knew he'd done nothing wrong, and that his detention was political.

Q: How were you first notified about your father’s detention?

The US Consulate in Shanghai notified my mother when my father was taken into custody.

Q: Throughout your ordeal, have you been properly notified about every stage?

The Chinese authorities provided a notice of residential surveillance when they took my father into RSDL, and later furnished an arrest notice after he was moved to the detention center in November 2016. These documents were shared with us by the [US] Consulate in Shanghai. We received information about the trial from my father's attorney as well as the Consulate; the sentencing hearing date was also shared with us in this manner.

We tried to get more information about my father's arrest from the Chinese authorities via the Consulate (since the RSDL notice and the arrest notice say nothing more than suspicions/accusations of espionage), but they consistently maintained that they could not provide any more details due to the fact that my father's alleged crime was "endangering national security" and involved "state secrets". While we still do not know what exactly these "state secrets" are, my father and his attorney have maintained that those secrets are freely searchable even on China's firewalled Internet.

Q:  What information do you have about your father’s treatment during his two-and-a-half months in RSDL?

My father stated in a letter during RSDL that he was harshly interrogated every single day. He has not provided more detail, though it must be noted that we have never had any unmonitored communication with my father in nearly four years of detention, which will likely prevent us from knowing the full extent of what went on during that time.

Q:  Can you describe what access or lack of access your father has had throughout to legal counsel?

My father was granted absolutely no access to legal counsel until early 2017, after he had completed 2.5 months in RSDL and spent another 1.5 months at the pre-trial detention centre. It was only then that he was able to hire an attorney, which my mother selected for him with his consent.

This was quite a difficult task as the vast majority of the attorneys she contacted were not willing to take on a state security case, due to the personal risks involved (many defense attorneys for such cases find themselves jailed or even forcibly disappeared). 

Q: Was your lawyer able to help your father at all?

While the attorney did prepare a strong legal defense, the political nature of my father's case meant that it was effectively useless. Under Chinese criminal law, all details of cases involving "endangering state security" can be withheld from everyone except the defense attorney (who is forced to sign an NDA barring them from sharing any information with family, media, or anyone else).

Since anything can be declared a state secret in China, even retroactively, the Chinese government can arbitrarily detain any foreign national for political leverage by accusing them of endangering state security by stealing state secrets and then never revealing any details of the case to the public.

Instead, they can rely on the forced confessions they obtain through RSDL. It's no wonder that such charges are being used to detain Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and have been used in the past to hold Americans like Sandy Phan-Gillis and Xue Feng. Sadly, my father is the latest (and currently only) American victim of this dangerous practice. 

Q: What kind of contact have you been allowed and in what way has it been affected by Covid-19?

Until my father was sentenced and moved to the prison in 2019, the only contact I had with my father was through letters. These letters were invariably screened by the authorities (both incoming and outgoing), and routinely delayed by weeks or months, and sometimes lost altogether or rejected for their content. 

The Consulate in Shanghai visited my father monthly up until January 2020, after which time the visits have not been permitted due to COVID-19.

Consular visits for Americans detained in China provide really the only connection to the outside world. 

Since June 2019, my father has been granted two 7.5-minute phone calls a month by the authorities at Qingpu Prison. He mentions that these calls are strictly monitored. On one occasion he expressed a desire for President Trump to take up his case with President Xi, and mentioned on the next call that he was threatened with punishment for doing so (the prison officials took the effort of translating our recorded English call into Chinese).

The last phone call from my father was on 4 July. No video.

Due to COVID-19, the Chinese authorities have suspended all outside visitors, including consular visits, to the prison as of January 2020. My father said he's heard rumours that this will be the case until at least the end of 2020, though they have not confirmed this to the Consulate. As a result, there is no reliable way to check upon my father's well being.

Last month, my father collapsed while on line to get food, and suffered from irregular heartbeat and stress-induced hypertension. He saw the prison doctor who prescribed a Chinese blood thinner but wanted to get a more complete cardiac examination. But he later decided against it, claiming he felt better and didn't want to be forcibly quarantined for 14 days, alone and at the mercy of prison officials. He also complains about the lack of produce or protein in his diet - since COVID-19 he has mainly been eating a lot of rice. Repeated requests to have family send in nutritional supplements, or to have them sold at the prison commissary, have been denied.

Q: Was anyone able to attend your father’s trial?

The Consulate was given advance warning that they would not be allowed to attend the trial, but they decided to show up anyway and try to gain access at the door, citing the US-China Consular Convention of 1980. They were not successful.

Q:  You say these charges against your father are politicized. Why do you think they have targeted your father?

My father recently revealed that he now believes his arrest was ordered as "retaliation" by someone he had come in contact with doing business several years back, who had strong ties to the Chinese military. Otherwise, my father is a baffling target as he is not some multimillionaire with lots of powerful connections.

Q: How have you tried to secure your father’s release?

For the first two and a half years of my father's detention, I hoped that quiet diplomacy would lead to a satisfactory resolution of my father's case. I had concerns that speaking out might be counterproductive to my father's well-being, so decided to try and work for my father's quiet diplomatic release.

While officials at all levels in the State Department and elsewhere repeatedly raised my father's case with their Chinese counterparts, evidently this did not lead to a favourable outcome for my father.  Meanwhile I was starting to see extensive media coverage of other foreigners arbitrarily detained in China on state security charges, most notably Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. As a result I decided to break the story of my father's situation to the New York Times in February 2019, when a group of US lawmakers wrote a letter urging President Trump to intervene on my father's behalf. 

The case still has not gotten the level of media attention I'd have hoped it would. Without a doubt, many more Americans know about the two Michaels than my father, though my father is a US citizen, finds himself in an extremely similar situation, and has been held for more than two years longer than the two Michaels.

Q:   What do you think would happen if you had tried to go to China to try and help your father?

I think there's a reasonable chance I wouldn't be able to come back, given that we're seeing China increasingly use exit bans to bar relatives of suspected foreign criminals from leaving the country once they enter. Consequently, I have no plans of visiting China anytime soon, even if the prison resumes family visits. It is not worth the risk.

Q:  What would be your advice to others going to China on business?

As China seeks to expand its national security apparatus into Hong Kong, the risk of foreign citizens being arbitrarily detained for doing business in China is higher than ever. Upsetting the wrong person at the wrong time can lead to being unwittingly caught up in a much larger geopolitical conflict. As described above, national security charges provide a convenient cover for China to detain foreigners without a bona fide reason based on the rule of law. My father's case demonstrates that Americans are certainly not immune to the hostage diplomacy that China has more openly and publicly engaged in with countries like Canada, Sweden, and Australia.