In a report that probably sent a chill down the spine of all Americans working or living in mainland China, two Americans who run an English-teaching business in China have been arrested and detained on "bogus" charges, according to a statement published on their company's Facebook page.
Jacob Harlan, a father of five, and Alyssa Petersen, were arrested in Jiangsu province last month, according to Hong Kong Free Press.
Their detention echoes the arrest of two Canadian nationals late last year. One man was a former diplomat, while the other ran a business taking westerners on tours of North Korea. They're both still in prison in China after formerly being charged with endangering national security. The charges are widely seen as bogus, and the arrests as political retribution for the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities at the behest of American prosecutors.
In the US, a gofundme page has been set up to raise money for their legal fees. According to the page, the two were charged with "illegally moving people across borders."
Their arrests are being reported amid negotiations between the US and Beijing over a potential trade deal. The State Department said that it's "aware" of the arrests and that it is taking its duty to assist the two US citizens seriously.
"We are aware of the detention of two US citizens in Jiangsu, China and the charges being brought against them by the provincial government," a US State Department official said on condition of anonymity.
"We take seriously our responsibility to assist US citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation."
China Horizons said in a Facebook post last week that the pair "are being charged for bogus crimes and their families are working on getting them international lawyers to help them get back home to the States." The company helps Americans find posts teaching English at Chinese schools. It said on its Facebook page that it now plans to shut down at the end of October.
"Unfortunately, because of increasing political and economic problems between the U.S. and China, we are no longer able to send teachers to china safely," the company wrote on its Facebook page.
Harlan, the founder of the company, is reportedly being held in a hotel in Zhenjiang under police surveillance. He was detained while he was with his eight-year-old daughter at a hotel in Weifang. Peterson, who is an employee with China Horizons, was detained around Sept. 27 and wasn't heard from for two weeks until the State Department finally located her.
"We received information that she is doing okay, She wakes up when told, she goes to sleep when told. She spends her day in a Jail Cell or walking in a circle counting steps," the gofundme.com page said.
"She cannot have any contact with anyone outside of a Consulate Officer who can visit once a month and a Lawyer."
According to Bloomberg, the arrests come on what appears to be a broader crackdown on foreign teachers working in China. State-owned news agency Xinhua has reported that 16 foreign teachers were arrested in July, following reports that thousands of teachers may be working in the country illegally. Notably, the crackdown follows the imposition of new rules about Chinese diplomats operating in the US, requiring them to notify American officials if they visit research institutions or hold meetings with Americans. China claims these restrictions violate the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.
Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China's foreign ministry, confirmed the detentions, and urged the US to "correct its mistake" and withdraw the new diplomatic rules, adding that he "doesn't see" how the detentions could be related to trade.