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China threatens to detain U.S. citizens if DOJ prosecutes scholars with Chinese military ties

Chinese officials told the Trump administration it may detain Americans if the Department of Justice prosecutes scholars suspected of having ties to China's military, the Wall Street Journal first reported and Axios confirmed.

Why it matters: It's the latest escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China and comes four months after Chinese authorities charged two Canadians with espionage in what American and Canadian officials believe was to avenge the arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who may face extradition to the U.S.

Driving the news: The Trump administration on July 22 ordered officials to close China's consulate in Houston, citing commercial espionage and intellectual property theft concerns.

  • A day later, the DOJ announced it had charged four researchers with visa fraud "in connection with a scheme to lie about their status as members" of the Chinese military. China shut the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China's Sichuan province, on July 27.
  • Last month, the U.S. revoked over 1,000 visas of Chinese nationals under a proclamation by President Trump aimed at student researchers suspected of having links to China's military.

Of note: While a State Department spokesperson would not comment on any specific threats, he pointed to the current travel advisory issued Sept. 14 that urges Americans to reconsider travel to China "due to COVID-19 and arbitrary enforcement of local laws."

  • The advisory states that China's government "arbitrarily" carries out wrongful detentions and imposes exit bans on citizens of the U.S. and other countries "to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments," among other reasons.
  • John Demers, head of the DOJ’s national security division, said in a statement to the New York Times, "We are aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian and other individuals without legal basis to retaliate against lawful prosecutions and to exert pressure on their governments, with a callous disregard of the individuals involved.
"If China wants to be seen as one of the world’s leading nations, it should respect the rule of law and stop taking hostages."

What they're saying: Hu Xijin, chief editor of the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times news outlet, tweeted Sunday that "the US has detained ... some Chinese scholars on spy charges, which is not good to safety of some U.S. nationals in China.

  • "Does Washington need to be warned? It's common sense. In my view, hegemony has turned some U.S. elites stupid, or they're pretending to be stupid."

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