The Chinese government has warned the United States that it may begin to detain Americans in response to the U.S. Justice Department's prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
Chinese officials reportedly issued multiple warnings to U.S. government representatives through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and other channels, as reported in the WSJ. The Chinese officials cautioned that they may arrest Americans currently residing in the country if U.S. officials don't drop charges against the country's scholars. The Wall Street Journal's sources for the report are from unnamed people familiar with the matter.
When asked about the report, the White House referred questions to the State Department, which responded to Reuters in an emailed statement that said, "To the Chinese government — including at the highest levels — our concern about China's coercive use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, and will continue to do so until we see a transparent and fair process."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comments on Saturday from the WSJ.
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had charged four Chinese nationals for visa fraud, the FBI arrested three of the suspects.
"These members of China's People Liberation Army applied for research visas while hiding their true affiliation with the PLA," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. "This is another part of the Chinese Communist Party's plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions. We will continue to conduct this investigation together with the FBI."
"The United States welcomes students, academics, and researchers from across the globe. Today's announcement shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to infiltrate and exploit America's benevolence," said John Brown, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's National Security Branch. "In interviews with members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people."
The DOJ also announced that it had conducted interviews of visa holders suspected of having undeclared affiliation with the Chinese military in more than 25 U.S. cities.
On Sept. 14, the State Department issued an advisory that warned against traveling to China "due to COVID-19 and risk due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws." The advisory cautioned that the Chinese government uses arbitrary detention of U.S. and foreign citizens "to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments."
"In most cases, U.S. citizens only become aware of an exit ban when they attempt to depart the PRC, and there is no reliable mechanism or legal process to find out how long the ban might continue or to contest it in a court of law," the advisory said.
Demers told the WSJ that the agency was "aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian and other individuals without legal basis to retaliate against lawful prosecutions and to exert pressure on their governments, with a callous disregard of the individuals involved."
In May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allowed the U.S. to cancel or deny student visas for anyone with direct connections to China's military, the People's Liberation Army.
"The PRC authorities use some Chinese students, mostly post‑graduate students and post-doctorate researchers, to operate as non-traditional collectors of intellectual property," the order stated. "Thus, students or researchers from the PRC studying or researching beyond the undergraduate level who are or have been associated with the PLA are at high risk of being exploited or co-opted by the PRC authorities and provide particular cause for concern."
There were approximately 360,000 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. schools as of August. As of Sept. 9, more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers had their visas revoked after the State Department deemed them to be "high risk," some were alleged to have ties to the People's Republic of China military.
In July, FBI Director Christopher Wray outlined the threats posed by the Chinese government.
"We've now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours," Wray said. "Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China. And at this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research."
Wray added a clarification, "Every year, the United States welcomes more than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers into this country. For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party."