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.