The U.S.-China relationship, hobbled by bitter feuds over tariffs and Taiwan, is facing new tensions as family members urge the Biden administration to get tough with Beijing to win the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans.
The nonprofit prisoner release advocacy organization Dui Hua Foundation estimates that there are up to 200 Americans arbitrarily detained in China and as many as 30 who are subject to unlawful exit bans.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in a June 13 meeting that releasing Americans wrongfully detained or subject to exit bans is a “personal priority for both himself and for the President,” a senior administration official said.
But lawmakers and family members of U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in China say Sullivan and the State Department are pursuing a prisoner release approach that’s likely to fail because it’s hinged to quiet engagement. They urge the Biden administration to play diplomatic hardball by brokering the release of Beijing’s American prisoners through prisoner swaps or by explicitly linking their freedom to progress on key bilateral issues, including tariffs and trade.
“I want them to do whatever it takes [even] if it takes trading him for Chinese nationals we have here,” said Katherine Swidan, mother of Mark Swidan, a Texan detained in China for more than nine years. “I know [Biden] can’t send in the Marines … but stop trade, don’t give [China] any leeway on tariffs or on trade until they release Mark.”
Swidan is one of three Americans imprisoned in China, including Kai Li and David Lin, whom the State Department’s office of the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs (SPEHA) designates as “wrongful detainees.” The designation authorizes Roger D. Carstens, the special envoy, to seek their release. But family members and prisoner release advocates say SPEHA is hitting a brick wall in Beijing and that Swidan, Li and Lin are suffering serious health problems caused by their imprisonment.