Skip to main content

Features

Taking prisoners

China is growing more aggressive against foreign influence and more brazen in jailing citizens of foreign countries

Taking prisoners

A paramilitary police officer at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

A day after President Donald Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the decadent Mar-a-Lago resort in early April, U.S. businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis spent her 57th birthday inside a detention center in the southern Chinese city of Nanning. Chinese authorities abducted Phan-Gillis while she was on a trade mission to Shenzhen in 2015, tortured her, forced her to confess to being an American spy, and placed her in solitary confinement. For more than a year, Phan-Gillis could not speak with her lawyer and was not formally charged with a crime. It wasn’t until an April 25 closed-door trial that a Chinese judge sentenced her to three and a half years in prison on espionage charges. China will likely parole Phan-Gillis soon and allow her to return home.

A month before the secret trial, her husband, Jeff Gillis expressed frustration over the two-year-long ordeal: “I’m horrified at the way she has been treated, and I am disappointed there has not been more support for getting her out,” said her husband, Jeff Gillis.

Under Xi, China is facing the worst crackdown on human rights since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as more than 1,400 known political prisoners currently languish in Chinese prisons, according to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Among the imprisoned are Chinese human rights lawyers, democracy activists, house church leaders, and ethnic minorities. Yet China has also grown increasingly bold in detaining foreign passport holders, including Swedish, American, Taiwanese, and British citizens, many of them of Chinese descent.

Beijing is becoming more suspicious of foreigners, as evidenced by a recently enacted foreign NGO (non-governmental organization) law and a draft religion law that will likely take effect this year. The laws give officials sweeping authority to expel or detain foreigners in China working in the areas of human rights or religion, claiming they “endanger national security.” Yet the response from the international community—including the United States—remains tepid as countries fear risking their trade relationship with the economic behemoth of China.

The case of Phan-Gillis differs from the others in that she never engaged in human rights work in China but rather worked to improve China-U.S. relations. While Phan-Gillis is ethnically Chinese, she’s never held Chinese citizenship: She was born in Vietnam, came to the United States as one of the Vietnamese boat people, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She presided over the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association, ran Houston’s Chinese New Year Festival, and hosted Chinese dignitaries. “If China State Security can arbitrarily detain and torture Sandy, they can arbitrarily detain and torture any American citizen,” Gillis testified at a March CECC hearing on China’s broken promises since its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002.

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese police question a man in Tiananmen Square, next to the Great Hall of the People. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

In March 2015, Phan-Gillis accompanied then-Houston Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez on a trade mission to Shenzhen. China’s spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, detained Phan-Gillis, while crossing the border into Macao, for “stealing state secrets,” a catch-all charge in China. For the first six months, authorities kept Phan-Gillis in residential surveillance, also known as a black jail, where prisoners are held incommunicado and interrogators use torture with impunity. When Gillis initially heard the term, he mistakenly thought it sounded nicer than a prison. But once he learned what residential surveillance entailed, “it broke my heart. I would have screamed sooner, but I had a wrong perception of what this was about.”

During the CECC hearing, Gillis choked up as he described the torture tactics used on his wife: Interrogators forced the middle-aged mother to sit on a small stool with raised teeth for hours on end. The torture sent Phan-Gillis to the hospital twice, once for a five-day stay due to a fear-induced heart attack. Officials also threatened to take away her medication if she didn’t admit to being a spy, which Gillis said would have killed her as she suffers from hypertension, diabetes, and other serious medical problems.

After six months authorities transferred her to a detention center where she was first held in solitary confinement, then shared a room with a cellmate. It wasn’t until last June, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ruled Phan-Gillis had been arbitrarily detained and her rights violated, that China filed charges against Phan-Gillis. It claimed she went on two spy missions in Nanning in 1996 to spy for the FBI, helped the FBI capture two Chinese spies in the United States, and helped turn these spies into double agents.

Gillis compiled a mountain of evidence to dispute those charges: Her passport didn’t have entrance or exit stamps or a China visa in 1996. Pay stubs, receipts, and credit card slips signed by Phan-Gillis proved she was in Houston working as a clerk for the Houston Police during the time of the alleged spying. She made public appearances on those dates as well, presenting at the Texas Asian Republican Caucus and attending an event at the Sam Houston Race Park where she was photographed and interviewed by a local newspaper. Furthermore, the FBI is not an international spy agency as China suggests; that’s the CIA.

So why did China detain a U.S. citizen for spy activities she didn’t commit? Gillis believes China could be retaliating against the FBI’s prosecution of Chinese spies in the United States. “I suspect Chinese state security is unhappy and in order to continue the narrative that China is filled with American spies, they need to make some up.” He also suspects his wife’s detainment could be linked to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which targets Xi’s political enemies. As Phan-Gillis worked with many Chinese officials over the past 20 years, it is possible one of them got on the wrong side of Xi, making her guilty by association.

Although two years have passed since Phan-Gillis’ detention began, her case is still not widely known. Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former President Barack Obama raised Phan-Gillis’ case to Xi and Chinese authorities, but to no avail. “The problem is not that Sandy’s case has not been raised enough,” Gillis said in March. “The problem has been that there have been absolutely zero consequences for China for essentially kidnapping and torturing a citizen of the United States.”

The sudden sentencing Phan-Gillis in late April may be the result of a renewed push by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, human rights activist John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation told the Houston Chronicle. Tillerson reportedly brought up the case during a visit to Beijing in March, amid improving U.S.-China relations.

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together (left) after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago on April 7. (Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon)

Gillis believes his wife’s poor treatment—she is likely the first American to be kept under residential surveillance—is due to the fact she is ethnically Chinese and so Chinese officials treat her like one of their own. In their mind, ethnicity trumps nationality.

This mentality has become increasingly apparent in the past few years as China has cracked down on Hong Kong booksellers and magazine editors for publishing gossipy stories about China’s top leaders. In 2014, Shenzhen authorities detained magazine publisher James Wang, a U.S. citizen based in Hong Kong, as he crossed the border into the mainland. Chinese officials would not allow the State Department to visit Wang or attend his hearings as he had entered into China with Hong Kong travel documents rather than his U.S. passport. (Phan-Gillis, on the other hand, is allowed consular visits.)

While the special administrative region of Hong Kong allows its citizens to hold two passports, China does not recognize dual citizenship. In 2015, Chinese officials abducted five Hong Kong booksellers, including Lee Bo, who holds both British and Hong Kong citizenship, and Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who renounced his Chinese citizenship. Officials denied both Lee and Gui access to their countries’ embassies for months. China’s foreign minister called Lee “first and foremost a Chinese citizen,” and in a televised forced confession Gui said, “I truly feel that I am Chinese.” In an even more brazen move, Chinese police kidnapped the two outside of mainland China—Gui in Thailand and Lee in Hong Kong. Today Gui is still imprisoned.

Kevin Carrico, a Chinese studies professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, agrees that how a foreigner looks affects how the Chinese government treats him or her. If he, a Caucasian man, decided to conduct research in China, the worst-case scenario is that China denies him a visa to enter the country. Yet for those considered overseas Chinese, “there’s an assumption of possession and the right to handle things in a more problematic way.” In March, Chinese authorities barred Australian professor Feng Chongyi from leaving China for more than a week, likely to interrogate him about his research on Chinese human rights activists. Feng, who was born in China but has permanent residence in Australia, often spoke out against the growing influence of the Communist Party on the Chinese community in Australia through Chinese-language media.

IN ADDITION, CHINA’S NEW FOREIGN NGO LAW, which went into effect Jan. 1, gives officials a legal cover to detain foreigners arbitrarily, said Bob Fu of Texas-based China Aid. The law places foreign NGOs under the jurisdiction of China’s Ministry of Public Security and bans NGOs focusing on sensitive issues like human rights or religion from operating in the country.

In the past, these groups operated in a gray area as the Chinese government did not provide a legal pathway for most NGOs to register in the country. The new law requires NGOs to provide detailed reports on their activities to the police, who have the right to seize documents and examine bank accounts. The law explicitly prohibits groups that illegally engage in or fund religious activities, warning that authorities could detain them for up to 15 days.

Associated Press/Photo by David J. Phillip

Jeff Gillis looks through documents he has collected in support of his wife, Sandy Phan-Gillis, in Houston. (Associated Press/Photo by David J. Phillip)

The Chinese government has always eyed foreign NGOs suspiciously, fearful of foreign ideas infiltrating civil society. Early last year, Chinese security agents detained Peter Dahlin, a Swede, for 23 days for training human rights lawyers and investigative journalists through his NGO, Chinese Urgent Action Working Group. Chinese officers only released Dahlin after he recorded a televised confession.

Fu said the new law essentially “extends Chinese law overseas.” For instance, if the Chinese authorities know an individual works for an NGO in the United States, they can use the vague NGO law to detain him or her in China. In March, authorities seized Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese NGO worker and college lecturer who traveled to the mainland to visit friends and arrange his mother-in-law’s medical treatment. He is under investigation for “pursuing activities harmful to national security.” Lee discussed Taiwan’s democracy experience with Chinese friends on his WeChat account and sent mainland friends books on sensitive topics like the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao Zedong.

The law causes concern among Christian NGOs working with unregistered churches, said Brent Fulton, president of ChinaSource. Under the Xi administration, officials have pushed for the Sinicization of religion, with the aim of cutting ties between Chinese Christians and overseas churches and ministries. Fulton believes the law is “one more tool in the toolkit if they decide [the group is] a problem and want to shut them down.”

The Chinese government also released a draft religion law that further restricts what churches in China can do: The law, which will likely take effect this year, would prohibit Chinese citizens from attending religious training or conferences overseas, restrict imported religious material (including news websites), and regulate the finances of religious organizations. “It’s in keeping with the general trend that makes sure the party has control in every corner of Chinese society,” Fulton said.

JOHN CAO, who has held U.S. permanent residency since 1990, felt the increased scrutiny firsthand: Authorities detained him in March while he was engaged in humanitarian work along the China-Burma border. He helped build and staff 16 schools for ethnic minorities in the Wa State of northern Burma (also known as Myanmar) that serve 2,000 students. For three years, he worked with local Chinese house churches, sending temporary and long-term teams to teach at the Burmese schools.

But in the past few months, government scrutiny intensified: Police closed local Chinese Bible schools, questioned his co-workers, forbade him from speaking at a conference in Hong Kong, and called his phone asking him to go to Burma. He made a trip to visit the schools, but officials arrested Cao and a co-worker as they crossed the border back into China on March 5.

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters hold missing person notices, including those of Gui Minhai (on left) and Lee Bo (on right) in Hong Kong. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities charged them with “organizing illegal border crossings,” which could result in more than seven years in prison. The violence between the Burmese army and ethnic minorities had closed the Burma-Chinese border, yet informal border crossings are common as border patrol typically turns a blind eye. Fu believes they had planned on catching Cao this way all along.

Cao, who is married to an American and has two children who are also U.S. citizens, kept his Chinese citizenship so that he could continue entering China for his mission work. He pastored a church in Greensboro, N.C., ministered to international students, and provided disaster relief after the Nepal earthquake. Fu believes Trump should “loudly urge China to free [Cao]. It will set a bad precedent if China is allowed to deal with Pastor John in this way when he should be awarded for his work.”

Beyond bringing up the names of prisoners during talks with Chinese officials, Gillis suggested the United States place a travel advisory on China and bar Chinese officials who engage in torture from entering the United States. As the United States works with China to return high-priority Chinese economic fugitives, Gillis said the government should halt all cooperation until his wife is released.

Fu believes the United States lost much of its hard leverage since giving China Permanent Normal Trade Status and allowing it to join the WTO. China has already become an “uncontrollable dragon,” Fu said, and under Xi, the country more and more resembles the police state in North Korea.

Sen. Marco Rubio, chairman of the CECC, stressed similar thoughts at the hearing. “We have learned that what [WTO accession] has done, more than anything else, is to turn a poor totalitarian state into a rich totalitarian state,” Rubio said. “This is why it is so important that America remains engaged in the world and that human rights remain a critical component of our foreign policy.”

UPDATE: China deported Sandy Phan-Gillis on April 28 and she reunited with her husband, Jeff Gillis, in Los Angeles on the same day. “I pray that the days ahead for Sandy and her family will be full of redeemed time and precious reunions," said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "As a community leader in Houston for decades, Sandy returns to a town grateful for her safety, and I thank God she is home again.” See “China releases American accused of spying.”

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Lee Ching-yu (center), wife of Lee Ming-che, speaks at a press conference in Taoyuan, Taiwan. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Hopeful NGO

For some organizations, China’s foreign NGO law may provide a pathway to legitimacy. This is especially true for those working in nonsensitive fields or conducting temporary activities in China such as summer camps.

For instance, David Bolt, the executive director of the Christian nonprofit Bring Me Hope, has high hopes for the new law. Bring Me Hope holds weeklong camps in six Chinese cities for orphans with disabilities living in local government orphanages. U.S. volunteers pair up with local college-aged translators and orphans and spend the week singing, playing games, and attending character lessons together. Bolt hopes the time with the kids encourages more people to adopt children with disabilities.

Handout

Bring Me Hope (Handout)

When he heard about the foreign NGO law, Bolt was glad Bring Me Hope could finally find a way to register in the country where the organization has worked for the past 12 years. Groups participating in temporary activities must find a Chinese partner to help obtain approval for activities and file the necessary documents with the Ministry of Public Security.

“I think this will be helpful,” Bolt said. “There wasn’t a way to really register with what we are doing, so I feel like it’s going to be a positive thing.” The group has begun applying for registration, but much of the process is unknown: how long it will take, how difficult it will be, how much it will cost, and how it will effect the organization. —J.C.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

Comments

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Fri, 04/28/2017 11:40 am

    Let's hope that while President Trump's administration is publicly working with, and praising, the leadership of President Xi to make positive steps on N Korea, etc., they are privately raising real concerns about these kinds of issues. 

    Also, I wonder about the term "the Sinicization of religion".  What does that mean?  From my limited knowledge of Chinese history, there was a significant presence of Christians, both Chinese and foreign, living and practicing their religion openly even during the Tang dynasty, around the same time as the introduction and growth of the foreign religion of Buddhism. However, a relatively arbitrary decision by a Tang emperor to crack down on religions other than Buddhism was a major reason that Buddhism stayed, while other religions were repressed.  So what religion is really "Sinicized"?

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Mon, 05/01/2017 12:13 am

    It is sad to watch China regress back to a primitive state bent on control and power, where the leadership loses more face as the people essentially don't respect the leadership! I suspect the people will grow tired and eventually remove the communists party from power. It will be interesting to watch this unfold.

  • md_reader
    Posted: Mon, 05/01/2017 08:37 am

    I haven't read this whole article, but the first section reveals a problem. The truth of the article relies on the premise that the author and/or her sources know whether or not Sandy is or was engaged with one of our intellegence agencies. If a source knows that to be fact, then they would be obligated by law and oath not to reveal it. 

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Tue, 05/02/2017 11:50 am

    The article includes the side that accuses her as well as the side that defends her... including quite a bit of evidence that has apparently been presented for the latter... but no real evidence presented by the Chinese accusers.  Why bother with evidence?  That's a big difference! 

    Whether or not the Chinese accusations are true, If there was lengthy detention without charges and torture used, which actually led to her having a heart attack, her treatment was wrong.