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The U.S. warns citizens of ‘arbitrary detention’ in China

The national flags of the U.S. and China waving outside a building.

Teh Eng Koon | AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has asked its citizens to “exercise increased caution” in China due to a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention” — a claim slammed by Chinese state-backed media Global Times as a “blatant distortion of truth.”

The U.S. advisory was issued on Saturday and did not specify what prompted the alert.

But it came amid worsening U.S.-China relations over a range of issues that include Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong, as well as alleged human rights violations by Chinese officials in Xinjiang and Tibet.

“Exercise increased caution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws for purposes other than maintaining law and order. This arbitrary enforcement may include detention and the use of exit bans,” read the advisory.

“U.S. citizens may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime,” it added.

The advisory also said that U.S. citizens may be “subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security'” and warned that they could be detained and/or deported “for sending private electronic messages critical of the PRC government.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Monday defended China after a reporter at a press conference requested for her comments regarding the U.S. advisory. Hua said the U.S. — instead of China — is the one subjecting foreign citizens to “egregious treatment.”

“The US has been arbitrarily monitoring, harassing, interrogating and even arresting Chinese students and scholars in the US. They wantonly seized the electronic equipment of Chinese citizens intending to return to their motherland and even absurdly cooked up espionage charges against them with presumption of guilt,” she said.

Hua also defended China’s rule of law, saying that foreign citizens don’t have to worry about their security as long as they abide by Chinese laws and regulations.

Her comments followed a report by Chinese state-backed publication, Global Times, which cited a professor from the China Foreign Affairs University accusing the U.S. of hyping up fears of China and a “blatant distortion” on how Chinese authorities enforce the country’s laws. Global Times is a tabloid under the People’s Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China. 

The report said foreigners will only be arrested on “solid evidence of illegal acts” and not “just for a few critical comments.”

Relations between the U.S. and China have been at their worst in decades. But the U.S. is not alone in warning its citizens of the potential risk that laws may be arbitrarily applied within Chinese territory.

Last week, Australia advised its citizens not to travel to Hong Kong, and to reconsider their need to remain in the city, due to uncertainties surrounding the new national security law there. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China.

— This story has been updated with comments from China’s foreign ministry.

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