Accessibility links

Breaking News

Chinese Woman Detained on Spying Charges After Working for US Company

Emily Chen, flanked by her son and husband, Mark Lent, takes the Victoria Peak tram in Hong Kong in 2018. Chen was detained by Chinese authorities on Dec. 29, 2023, and has been held since then on charges of spying. (Photo courtesy of Mark Lent)
Emily Chen, flanked by her son and husband, Mark Lent, takes the Victoria Peak tram in Hong Kong in 2018. Chen was detained by Chinese authorities on Dec. 29, 2023, and has been held since then on charges of spying. (Photo courtesy of Mark Lent)

Family members say they are still seeking answers more than two months after China’s detention on spying charges of a Chinese citizen who had tried to help an American company find office space in the country.

Emily Chen, 50, was supposed to meet her husband, U.S. citizen Mark Lent, at Nanjing airport on December 29. She texted Lent that her plane had landed but never emerged from the airport, prompting Lent to initiate a frantic inquiry about her whereabouts.

“Her flight was supposed to land at 10:30 p.m. on December 29, but she still hadn’t shown up by midnight,” Lent told VOA by phone. “I contacted the airport police, and 20 minutes later, they told me that Emily had been taken away by state security officers.”

Four days after her detention, Chen’s son, who is also a Chinese national, received a notification from the Dalian state security bureau stating that Chen had been arrested on December 30 for illegally providing state secrets to overseas parties, a charge that could carry a sentence of 10 years or more.

“I know my wife and [spying on China] is not the kind of thing that she would do to her country,” Lent said. “She really cares about her country, and I seriously doubt the charges against her.”

Worried that Chen’s arrest may increase the stress on her son, who is in his early 20s and has mental health issues, Lent tried to take his stepson to Doha, Qatar, with him on February 9. However, when they were going through customs at the Shanghai airport, his stepson was banned from leaving China.

Lent told VOA that his stepson’s relationship with his father in China is strained and that he is still in Nanjing on his own.

Worked for US logistics company

Authorities in Dalian have not spoken publicly about Chen’s case, including her exact whereabouts. It is believed that Chen is being held under what is called residential surveillance at a designated location, or RSDL. The Dalian state security bureau hung up the phone when VOA tried to inquire about Chen’s case.

While there is no clear explanation for the spying charges against Chen, Lent believes her detention may be related to the work she did for an American logistics company in Dalian in 2023.

According to Lent, Chen spent four months working on behalf of Safe Ports, a company that describes itself as a global leader in supply chain management. “She was supposed to find them an office space,” he told VOA.

Safe Ports has previously done work for the U.S. Department of Defense, including supplying American troops in Afghanistan. While there is no confirmation that Chen’s detention is directly related to her work for Safe Ports, the company’s prior association with the U.S. Department of Defense and the sensitive nature of Dalian, which hosts a Chinese naval base, may have resulted in her arrest, some observers say.

Dalian is also where China constructed its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong.

“Either what the company was doing, which they didn’t share, involves some potential espionage-related activities or her arrest is just a terrible overreach by the Chinese government that has gone out of proportion,” Peter Dahlin, the director of Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders, told VOA by phone.

Neither Safe Ports nor the company’s CEO, Lucy Duncan, responded to multiple interview requests from VOA. However Duncan was quoted by The Guardian newspaper, saying that Chen’s work for Safe Ports was “purely administrative” and that she had no idea why Chen was detained.

Dahlin — who was himself previously held under RSDL — said the fact that Chen was arrested upon returning to China indicates that Chinese authorities “have been tracking” Chen’s activities “for a while.”

Since RSDL is typically used against individuals viewed as a threat to national security in China, Lent said until recently the family had received little information about Chen’s condition for weeks.

Over the past week, her family says, they have received several updates about Chen’s situation in detention, including a letter in which Chen said she “was fine” and a call from state security officers handling her case. According to Lent, the officer told Chen’s son that the investigation was ongoing.

“When [my stepson] talked to them, he seemed to think they were honest and that Emily was given everything she needed,” Lent told VOA, adding that the updates have made him feel more positive about Chen’s situation in detention.

Stepped-up security efforts

Chen’s detention comes as China doubles down on efforts to safeguard national security, passing amendments to laws such as the anti-espionage law and state secrets law and initiating raids against some foreign businesses, including some American due diligence firms.

In a recent interview, the U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns told “60 Minutes” that over the past year Chinese authorities raided at least seven American companies and arrested employees on suspicion of espionage.

Some analysts say Chen’s case is part of Beijing’s campaign to further securitize the country, efforts that ultimately will further reduce foreign businesses’ confidence in China.

“It’s becoming riskier for Chinese citizens to work for foreign companies because the Chinese government under Xi Jinping continues to securitize the country and initiate national-security related investigations against foreign companies,” Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, told VOA by phone.

In response to an inquiry about Chen’s case, the Chinese Embassy in Washington told VOA that it was unaware of the specifics of her detention but that China protects the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese nationals “in accordance with the law.”

“China is actively advancing its high-level opening-up and making efforts to provide a world-class, market-oriented business environment governed by a sound legal framework,” Liu Pengyu, the embassy spokesperson, wrote in response.

While the recent updates have eased some of Lent’s concerns about Chen’s conditions in detention, he said the case has caused serious financial and emotional damage to the family.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t break down over this because I love her very much,” he told VOA. “[While] I have so much confidence that she will eventually prevail on this, I still think it’s going to be a tough road ahead for her.”