But lawmakers and family members of US citizens wrongfully detained in China say Sullivan and the State Department are pursuing a prisoner release approach that’s likely to fail because it’s hinged to quiet engagement. They urge the Biden administration to play diplomatic hardball by brokering the release of Beijing’s American prisoners through prisoner swaps or by explicitly linking their freedom to progress on key bilateral issues, including tariffs and trade.
“I want them to do whatever it takes [even] if it takes trading him for Chinese nationals we have here,” said Katherine Swidan, mother of Mark Swidan, a Texan detained in China for more than nine years. “I know [Biden] can’t send in the Marines … but stop trade, don’t give [China] any leeway on tariffs or on trade until they release Mark.”
Swidan is one of three Americans imprisoned in China, including Kai Li and David Lin, whom the State Department’s office of the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs (SPEHA) designates as “wrongful detainees.” The designation authorizes Roger D. Carstens, the special envoy, to seek their release. But family members and prisoner release advocates say SPEHA is hitting a brick wall in Beijing and that Swidan, Li and Lin are suffering serious health problems caused by their imprisonment.
“[Carstens] and his team are working very hard [but] they’re not making any progress,” said John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation. “What I see is growing frustration on the part of the administration about the complete failure on the part of the Chinese to respond — [there’s] no progress on any of these cases.”
Neither Carstens’ office, the National Security Council nor the White House responded to POLITICO’s requests for comment about Sullivan’s prisoner release initiative or the number of Americans deemed wrongfully detained in China. It’s a topic the Chinese government also wants to avoid. Yang’s readout of his meeting with Sullivan made no mention of the initiative and the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But the State Department recognizes there’s a problem. It adjusted its China travel advisory in April to a level three “reconsider travel” classification due to “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” And relatives of Americans unjustly jailed and their advocates are concerned that Chinese authorities are intentionally targeting US citizens, making them geopolitical pawns.
“There are Americans in trouble in China for the main reason simply that they are Americans,” Kamm said. “This is all part of the fraying fabric of US-China relations — they are taking it out on our people.”
Swidan’s plight reflects the perils of the Chinese judicial system. Chinese police arrested him in November 2012 for allegedly manufacturing and trafficking narcotics despite what Dui Hua has described as an absence of substantive evidence. A court in Guangdong province — after a 5 ½-year trial — sentenced Swidan to death with a two-year reprieve in January 2020.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Swidan a victim of arbitrary detention in February 2020. It called for his release and the right to claim “compensation and other reparations.” China has ignored the ruling.
Swidan’s mother complains that neither Sullivan nor Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, are doing enough. In recent phone calls, she said, they indicated that they are concerned about her son’s imprisonment, but don’t intend a major policy shift to win his release. She insists it’s a failed strategy of softball diplomatic engagement.
“I’m tired of [govt officials] trying to pacify me. I’m tired of ‘Yes, he’s on our radar’ [or] ‘Yes, he’s at the top of our list,’” Swidan said. “I hear a lot of rhetoric. I don’t see any results.”
The State Department insists that it is working hard to get Mark Swidan home. “Ambassador Burns reached out to Mrs. Swidan to listen to her concerns and assure her that seeking the release of her son is a Department priority,” a State Department spokesperson told POLITICO in a statement. “He is committed to continuing to raise his son’s case directly with senior PRC officials, as he did in his very first meeting with the PRC government in April.”
Burns will visit Swidan as soon as Chinese government Covid restrictions allow and is pushing to get him access to an “independent (non-prison) physician to assess his physical well-being,” the State spokesperson said.
Harrison Li feels similar frustration. His father, Kai Li, was detained in September 2016 by the Shanghai State Security Bureau and sentenced to a 10-year prison term in July 2018 for allegedly spying for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The UN declared Kai Li a victim of arbitrary detention in 2021 and described his imprisonment as “political and not criminal … [and] at least in part attributable to his status as a foreign national of Chinese heritage.”
Li said that in a recent call, Sullivan was unable to say what he would do differently to bring his father home.
“The call was fairly disappointing because I wasn’t really able to get any concrete promises,” Li said. “It remains to be seen whether there’s really any substance or just sort of ‘we brought this up at the meeting’ because he felt like he needed to [and] whether there was actually substantive meat behind these prioritizations.”
“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of wrongfully detained US citizens in the PRC and work to support their families.”
Lawmakers have been demanding a better strategy to free wrongfully detained US citizens in China for years. A bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), wrote President Donald Trump in December 2020 urging his administration to be “tenacious advocates” for Americans behind bars in China. A bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers sent a joint letter to Biden in November demanding that he redouble efforts to free Kai Li.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) was the lead author on a bipartisan letter in March urging Biden to “actively engage” with Chinese President Xi Jinping to win David Lin’s freedom. And last month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a blistering letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing the administration of “an unacceptable lack of urgency” in seeking Swiden’s release and demanding to know the “specific steps” taken to free him.
This congressional skepticism reflects a belief among advocates of the wrongfully detained in China that Beijing’s economic leverage trumps the willingness of governments to aggressively seek the release of their jailed citizens.
“I see tremendous cowardice and weakness in the behavior of Western governments towards China rooted in the fact that they want to put commercial ties and corporate interests and contracts ahead of the interests of individual citizens who have been innocently locked up in Chinese jails,” said Peter Humphrey, a former victim of arbitrary detention in China who works to release foreign citizens who unfairly end up in prison there. “This is a perennial problem with the US government’s handling of its prisoners abroad, especially in China.”
Humphrey is assisting the families of several US citizens who he says the Chinese judicial system has unfairly imprisoned. They include David McMahon, a teacher jailed since 2013 on what he insists is a false charge of child molestation and Nelson Wells Jr., imprisoned since 2014 on what Humphrey says are bogus drug trafficking charges.
“The way to get people out is probably not just by making noise. … One way for the Americans to get some people back from China would be to hand over some warm bodies,” Humphrey said.
Those “warm bodies” mean prisoner swaps. SPEHA brokered Russia’s release of US citizen Trevor Reed in April in exchange for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko. The Chinese government showed its willingness to engage in prisoner swaps in September by responding to the release of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou from Canadian custody by freeing arbitrarily detained Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Russian media suggested last month that the US could affect the release of basketball star Brittney Griner, imprisoned in Russia on drug possession charges since February, by swapping her for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
That approach resonates with Harrison Li, who says that current US government commitment to free his father is going nowhere. “A tool that has been used successfully in other countries is prisoner trades [and] something along that vein needs to be offered to the Chinese government,” Li said.
But SPEHA’s Carstens has warned that making prisoner swaps a default method to liberate US citizens could backfire by incentivizing abuses. “My job is to start becoming creative — what else can we possibly do to solve this problem without giving a direct concession?” Carstens told CBS’ 60 Minutes on June 12. “If there’s a way I can get someone out that doesn’t involve a swap, [that’s] much better.”
Lin’s daughter, Alice, echoes Carstens’ concern. “If you give into a terrorist’s demand, then that actually endangers more Americans because now they find out, ‘Oh, here’s an easy way to be financed, I just have to go capture more Americans,’” Alice Lin said.
But Alice Lin and other relatives of Americans wrongfully detained in China say creative approaches to freeing their loved ones are long overdue.
“The US government needs to take a broader view and realize that if they continue to allow the Chinese government to just arbitrarily detain ordinary Americans who have no high-level political connections or economic clout, that eventually doing business in China will be untenable,” Li said.