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08 May 2022

US prisoner in Shanghai jail disappears in city's COVID lockdown

While China pursues a zero-COVID policy with severely restrictive lockdowns across major cities, foreigners in the country's jails have been cut off from consular access in violation of bilateral consular agreements and the Vienna Convention. Harrison Li, the son of imprisoned US citizen Kai Li, writes this guest post on describing how impossible it is to get news about his father, and why it's important for governments to do much more to protect their citizens in China.

Nicholas Burns, the new U.S. Ambassador to China, has tweeted numerous times in recent weeks praising U.S. consular officers for being available around the clock to protect Americans dealing with the strict COVID-19 lockdown measures that have been imposed in Shanghai since March, despite all of the non-essential staff being ordered to leave the city on April 11.

One group the staff has failed to adequately protect, however, are Americans jailed in Shanghai.

My father, Kai Li, is one of them. He’s serving a 10-year prison sentence at Qingpu Prison in Shanghai on false charges of espionage and “stealing state secrets” that are nearly identical to those of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were freed from prison last year following the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to send Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou back to China. His detention was formally deemed arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention early last year.

Since late March, the foreign prisoners at Qingpu’s Brigade No. 8 have been held inside their cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The cells are not climate controlled, and each holds 12 prisoners in a tiny space.

They also have not been able to make any phone calls to their families or receive consular visits, cutting off their only lifelines to the outside world. This makes it impossible for anyone to know what conditions are like in the prison.

Typically, foreign inmates are permitted three 7.5-minute voice calls each month to friends or family, while the U.S.-China Consular Convention of 1980 requires monthly visits to all American detainees in China.

In-person consular visits have not occurred since the beginning of 2020. They were replaced with single 7.5-minute calls.

Now, with the COVID-19 lockdown, prison authorities informed the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai that prisoners at Qingpu would no longer be allowed to make any calls. They later told the Consulate that the phone system was broken, and the lockdown measures prevented the prison from bringing anyone to fix the system, until the COVID-19 lockdown measures let up.

There was no substantive action by the Consulate upon receiving this information, other than vague assurances they would ask for the phone calls to resume. I was told by multiple U.S. officials who, after making excuses that the consular office at the Westgate mall in Shanghai had been shuttered due to the COVID restrictions, said that the Consulate was essentially powerless to push for any change here. All the while, Katherine Swidan, the mother of Mark Swidan, another American arbitrarily detained in China, has said her son hasn’t received a consular visit in more than six months.

Only after I spoke with senior leadership in the U.S. State Department did the Consulate finally write two formal letters to the Shanghai Prison Authority. The first asked for prisoners’ phone calls to be restored immediately; the second requested a status update on the health and well-being of those detained at Qingpu. The prison authority gave rather timely responses, reiterating that the phone system was broken and unable to be fixed, and pointing to the fact that prisoners can still write and receive written letters.

My dad spent two and a half years in detention before being transferred to Qingpu – first at an unknown location under RSDL, then at a pre-trial detention center in Shanghai. During that time he wasn’t allowed any phone calls, so all we could do to communicate was write letters. Each of those letters took anywhere from several weeks to months to be passed on, since they were all reviewed and screened carefully. They were often “lost” or explicitly rejected for touching on the case against my father in any way. While the phone calls are also monitored, and prisoners face punishment threats for saying things the prison authorities don’t like in those calls, they are inherently a freer form of communication.

In terms of the status report, we were given three short sentences:

“Kai Li suffers from high blood pressure. His prescribed medication is Norvasc. He is in stable condition.”

This is all the more strange since my dad had said in his most recent calls (before the current wave of lockdown measures) that he was grateful to be finally off his medications, as his blood pressure seemed to have stabilized (notwithstanding that he actually suffered from low blood pressure before being jailed). It remains to be seen whether the status report was simply re-hashing old information, or if my dad’s blood pressure has flared up again.

These events have made it clear that the rights of detained foreigners under bilateral agreements cannot be guaranteed, and serve as a further warning of the risks to foreign nationals traveling or working in China. Much more substantive effort is needed from foreign governments to advocate for the rights of their incarcerated citizens in China, who can be cut off from the outside world at the blink of an eye.

You can read Harrison's blog on his father's situation here

We wrote last year on why consular agreements mean nothing in China