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Lawmakers Urge Biden to Bring Up Issue of Detained Americans With Xi

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 14, 2023.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 14, 2023.

U.S. lawmakers are urging President Joe Biden to prioritize the release of U.S. citizens deemed wrongfully detained by China when he meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday in San Francisco.

The U.S. State Department says Texas businessman Mark Swidan, Chinese American businessman Kai Li from Long Island, New York, and California pastor David Lin are wrongfully detained by China.

Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has repeatedly spoken out for Mark Swidan. McCaul urged Biden to put the release of Americans wrongfully detained by China high on the agenda for his meeting with Xi.

McCaul said in a statement sent to VOA Mandarin, "The Biden administration must stop making any concessions based on false promises and hold the [Chinese Communist Party] accountable for its gross human rights violations."

In a letter to the White House on Nov. 8, Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, along with 12 Republican members of the committee, asked that Biden raise 10 issues with Xi, one of which is to release all American citizens the U.S. government has determined to be wrongfully detained in China.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also wrote to Biden, according to Reuters.

"With the holiday season approaching, and the opportunity to start the New Year on a more positive note in bilateral U.S.-China relationships, I implore you to secure commitments from President Xi to release these Americans immediately," Cardin wrote.

According to Reuters, a State Department spokesperson has noted that it continually raises wrongfully detained U.S. nationals during engagements with senior Chinese officials.

China says such cases are handled according to law.

Swidan, a Texas businessman, was arrested on drug-related charges in Guangdong Province in 2012 on his first trip to China.

In 2013, the Jiangmen Intermediate People's Court in southern Guangdong convicted him of manufacturing and trafficking drugs.

In 2019, it handed down a death sentence with a two-year suspension. Under Chinese law, this means the sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years, depending on the convict's behavior.

This year, his appeal was denied, and the original sentence was upheld.

The U.S. Embassy in China said in a statement, "We are disappointed by this decision and will continue to press for his immediate release and return to the United States."

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Human Rights Council also characterized Swidan's detention as illegal and called on Chinese authorities to immediately release him and provide compensation.

"It is 11 years this month since Mark was detained," Swidan's mother, Katherine Flint Swidan, 73, told VOA Mandarin. She said Biden must bring up those wrongfully detained in China when he meets Xi because "they are pawns."

She told VOA Mandarin that the Chinese government has denied visitation requests from the U.S. consulate since September, and Beijing was transferring her son to Dongguan Prison, near the border with Hong Kong.

She last heard her son's voice during a call in 2018 and since then has communicated by letter.

In one, Swidan described dislocated knees, fluid accumulation in his legs and constant bleeding in his mouth.

She said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, told her in August after visiting Swidan that he was in poor health and had suicidal tendencies.

Katherine Swidan lives in a small apartment in Luling, Texas, about 76 kilometers south of Austin. She needs a walker and relies on Social Security benefits to make ends meet.

She worries she may never see her son again and that he may never leave China safely.

Katherine Swidan said she spoke to Burns over the weekend, according to Reuters. She described the conversation as "disappointing" because the ambassador would not say whether Biden would raise her son's name with Xi.

The U.S. Embassy in China has not provided updated information to VOA's inquiries.

Kai Li's son, Harrison Li, sent a letter to Biden last week, saying, "I'm following up now on my letters to you dated April 8, 2022, and June 15, 2022, to urge you to earn my father's release in advance of your anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco later this month."

Harrison Li told VOA Mandarin, "The detainee issue is the type of small but important thorn in the bilateral relationship that can and should actually be resolved through dialogue. Our government has an obligation to take advantage of the current apparent warming in U.S.-China relations to move progress forward on these longstanding detainee cases."

Chinese authorities arrested Kai Li at the Shanghai airport in 2016. Two years later, he was convicted of espionage charges, which he denies, and sentenced to 10 years in Shanghai's Qingpu Prison, where many foreigners are incarcerated.

A former fellow prisoner, released from the institution housing Kai Li, told VOA Mandarin in September that Kai Li was sometimes called on by prison staff to help them communicate with foreign prisoners who spoke English.

The former prisoner asked not to be identified because he is afraid of retaliation by Chinese authorities.

He said Kai Li translated when prisoners were taken to the hospital and also managed the prison library. He added that Kai Li also often spoke of his son Harrison and was proud of Harrison for constantly speaking up about his case.

David Lin, a pastor from Orange County, California, was arrested in 2006, then convicted and sentenced to life on what the U.S. government says were bogus charges of contract fraud. A year ago, before the Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Chinese authorities reduced Lin's sentence to 24 years, meaning he will be 75 when freed in 2030.

According to ChinaAid, Lin was detained in 2006 for helping a house church to build a church building, something that is illegal in China.

"Subsequently, authorities restricted him from leaving the country. He was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of 'contract fraud.'"

Lin was sentenced to life in prison on the charge later that year.

Peter Humphrey, a British journalist turned consultant, was detained with his wife in 2013. They were found guilty of illegally obtaining information on Chinese citizens. Humphrey was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

His wife was sentenced to two years. Both were released early in June 2015 for health reasons.

He now helps foreigners imprisoned by the Chinese government and campaigns for their release.

He believes there are more than three Americans wrongfully incarcerated by China.

Humphrey told VOA Mandarin, "The ordeals of the many Americans held in Xi's jails should be high on the agenda for Biden's meeting with Xi if Biden cares at all about wrongfully incarcerated American citizens. That means all American prisoners and not just a tiny select handful."

"Not a single one of them has had a fair and transparent trial in front of an impartial judge because the Chinese legal and judicial system does not provide any such thing," he said.

He suggested Biden hand over a list of all American citizens incarcerated in China, demand a mass prison transfer swap agreement to bring them home to an American facility, and then review their cases, none of which "would survive the scrutiny of an American court."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.