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Families of Americans Wrongfully Detained in China Urge Blinken to Prioritize Release

Families of Americans wrongfully detained in China are calling on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to bring up American detainee cases during his meetings with top Chinese leaders in Beijing next month.

Blinken is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s top diplomat and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Wang Yi, as well as newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, according to diplomatic sources.

Meanwhile, the United States is urging Americans who plan to travel to China to “exercise increased caution” due to “wrongful detentions.”

In an updated travel advisory issued on January 11, the State Department asked U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel to the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, including the Special Administrative Regions, or SARs, of Hong Kong and Macau because of the surge in COVID-19 cases and arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

Kai Li is an American citizen wrongfully detained in China since September 2016. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage, a charge that his family rejects.

His son, Harrison Li, told VOA on Wednesday: “I have not heard anything concrete from the U.S. government about any real updates to my father Kai Li’s case.”

Harrison Li and others from the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign” sent U.S. President Joe Biden letters last June and in December, asking the president to prioritize the expeditious resolution of their families’ cases.

This week, the campaign again urged President Biden to authorize Blinken “to use all available tools” to secure the release of three wrongfully detained Americans in China.


The three cases refer to Kai Li, American pastor David Lin and U.S. citizen Mark Swidan.

Lin was detained under unclear circumstances in 2006 and later sentenced to life in prison on charges of contract fraud. Lin’s family staunchly maintained his innocence. Lin’s sentence was later reduced, and he is expected to be released in 2029.

Swidan is a businessman detained for drug-related charges, even though his passport shows he was not in China at the time of the alleged crime.

There is no indication of their immediate release.

When asked about the estimated number of Americans wrongfully detained by China, a State Department spokesperson told VOA, “The Department does not publicly disclose the number of cases determined to be wrongful, due to privacy concerns and the sensitivity of ongoing efforts” to secure their release.

The spokesperson would not discuss “the details of ongoing diplomatic conversations.”

“I’d like to tell the PRC authorities that one of the easiest things they can do to show they are truly serious about ‘win-win cooperation’ with the United States is to release my dad and other Americans being held in China arbitrarily. My dad has already suffered for almost six and half years, it is past time for him to come home,” Harrison Li told VOA.

VOA reached out to China’s Embassy in Washington for remarks and a spokesperson from the Embassy replied: “Currently we do not have comments on this issue.”

Chinese authorities are seeking to gain leverage over the U.S. with Americans wrongfully detained in China, according to U.S. officials.

There are several cases where the Chinese government wants to see the return of people deemed as tied to Beijing’s so-called Operation Fox Hunt. The program has been accused of targeting Chinese dissidents in the name of returning corrupt Chinese nationals to face charges.

Generally, an American held by a foreign government for the purposes of pressuring Washington to make political or other concessions is determined as “wrongfully detained.”

Once the United States government designates an American detained abroad as wrongfully detained, the government is required to transfer the case from the State Department’s Bureau in charge of Consular Affairs to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. It also is required to seek the release of wrongfully detained Americans.