Arrest of Americans in China Raises Concern of Political Retaliation

October 17, 2019 Updated: October 17, 2019

China has arrested two American citizens who run an Idaho-based English-teaching program on suspicion of “illegally moving people across borders,” the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed on Oct. 17.

The charge carries a sentence of two to seven years, according to Chinese law.

Local police on Sept. 29 and 27 arrested Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen, the owner and director, respectively, of China Horizons, in the country’s southeastern province of Jiangsu, foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said during a press conference.

“Compulsory measures of criminal detention and release on bail were taken against” the two U.S. nationals, he said. The U.S. State Department hasn’t confirmed their release.

The U.S. State Department did confirm their detention in an email, without providing further details, adding that it was in contact with Petersen and “monitoring the situation.”

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Alyssa Petersen with kids in the teaching program. (GoFundMe)

China Horizons arranges for its U.S. employees to acquire a Chinese visa to teach English in Chinese schools.

A China Horizons Facebook post on Oct. 11 said that the two were “being charged for bogus crimes,” and could be detained for “the next few months or years.” The program also noted that it will be closing its doors by the end of the month after 17 years of operation.

“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 post stated.

Two GoFundMe pages for financing Harlan and Petersen’s lawyer fees have collectively raised $40,000 as of press time.

According to the GoFundMe pages, set up by family friend Sarah Jackson, on Oct. 10 and 11, police took Harlan and his 8-year-old daughter, Viara, from the hotel where they were staying in Weifang City of Shandong Province on Sept. 28.

Peterson’s page said that her family lost contact with her after she was arrested. The family then contacted the State Department for help in locating her.

“We received information that she is doing okay,” the GoFundMe page said. “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.” As of press time, there have been no further updates to the page.

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A photo of Alyssa Petersen. (GoFundMe)

Petersen has been involved in the program for 10 years, training English teachers and teaching at a school in Zhenjiang, according to the page. She can’t have contact with anyone “outside of a Consulate Officer who can visit once a month and a Lawyer,” it said.

Jackson wrote on the GoFundMe pages that the family has found legal representation for both.

The arrest of Harlan and Petersen took place just days after U.S. federal prosecutors charged Chinese national Liu Zhongsan in New Jersey with fraudulently obtaining U.S. visas for Chinese government employees. The timing has raised suspicions of possible political retaliation.

Prosecutors allege that Liu helped Chinese government employees enter the United States under the guise of research scholars, while “in reality, their assignment was to recruit top U.S. talent to benefit the government of China,” according to a Sept. 16 press release.

Geng, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said at the press conference that he doesn’t “see any connection between this case and the current China–U.S. relations.”

Canadian citizens in China have faced retaliation following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, in Vancouver last December. According to Canadian authorities, 13 of its citizens have been detained in China since Meng’s arrest.

Last year, Christian pastor and U.S. citizen John Sanqiang Cao was sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charge that Harland and Petersen face.

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