American citizen, Kai Li from New York has been wrongfully imprisoned in China since September 2016. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for his immediate release. On the 4th of November last year, a bipartisan group of 15 members of Congress wrote a letter to President of the United States Joe Biden urging him to bring Kai Li back home to the US.
We had the honour of interviewing Kai Li’s son, Harrison Li in October last year. In recent weeks, the Chinese government have imposed one of the strictest COVID19 lockdowns in the world, in Shanghai. This is where Kai is being held. The prison authorities have cancelled Kai’s consular support phone calls with the US Embassy as well as his phone calls with his family back home in the United States.
On this episode, we are joined once again by Kai’s son, Harrison Li. He talks to us about the recent developments in Shanghai, his concerns that the US government are not prioritising the return of Americans held in China as well as a disappointing virtual meeting he had with US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan and the families of other Americans held hostage or wrongfully imprisoned overseas. We end this episode by talking about what President Biden, the news media and the public can do to help free Kai Li.
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SITREP Pod: Free Kai Li, American held in China | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Harrison Li
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week, and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair, and I've had the honour of campaigning with many of these families for years. These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us. People who have never given up hope, people who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now, let's meet this week's guest Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. American citizen, Kai Li from New York, has been wrongfully imprisoned in China since September 2016. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for his immediate release. The current travel advisory for China, issued by the US State Department, has a Level 3 Reconsider Travel rating. The first line of this US government travel advisory states the following: "Reconsider travel to the People's Republic of China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws." The following is also stated in this travel advisory. "The People's Republic of China government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on US citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law. The PRC government uses arbitrary detention and exit bans to, number one, compel individuals to participate in PRC government investigations. Number two, pressure family members to return to the PRC from abroad. Number three, influence PRC authorities to resolve civil disputes in favour of PRC citizens, and, number four, gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments." This last point is basically state sponsored hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy. Now, that was from the current US travel advisory for China. On 4th November last year, a bipartisan group of 15 members of Congress wrote a letter to President of the United States, Joe Biden, urging him to bring Kai Li back home to the US. The following is one of the paragraphs from that letter. "We urge you to prioritise Mr. Li's release and make every effort to secure his freedom on humanitarian grounds in order for him to safely return to his family after more than five years. Given the cruel conditions of his ongoing imprisonment, and the recent release of others detained under similar circumstances, time is of the utmost importance." We had the honour of interviewing Kai Li's son, Harrison Li, in October last year. If you haven't already, please do check out this episode on your podcast app or visit podhostagediplomacy.com. We always tell the families we interview that we will be campaigning right by their side until their loved ones come home. And we mean it. So, we will keep you up to date with their campaigns through sitrep pods like this one, or breaking news pods. We're joined today once again by Kai Li's son, Harrison Li. Harrison, I'm so sorry it couldn't be under better circumstances. Welcome back. And thank you for joining us.
Harrison Li 03:34
Thank you so much, Daren, for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to provide an update on my father's situation. And thank you for taking the time.
Daren Nair 03:43
You're welcome. Now, for our listeners who haven't listened to our previous episode, can you please give them a summary of what happened to your father?
Harrison Li 03:51
Of course. So, my father is an American citizen who has been wrongfully detained in Shanghai, China since September 2016. He is being held there on false charges of espionage and stealing state secrets. And if there was any doubt at all, that these charges are indeed politically motivated and intended to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments, including that of the United States, I would like to emphasise that my father's defence attorney, who he was only allowed to hire after more than five months under arbitrary detention, has said that the quote unquote state secrets that he is accused of furnishing are, in fact, freely searchable on the internet, even behind China's Great Firewall. I think this demonstrates the lengths to which the Chinese government is willing to undertake this process of hostage diplomacy, and it needs to come to an end as soon as possible. As Daren mentioned, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also ruled my father's detention to be arbitrary. The working group is consistent of a group of human rights experts, none of whom are from either the United States or China. And they have independently ruled, based on the evidence available to them, that, in fact, my father's detention is in blatant contravention of various international human rights norms, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As most of these listeners, I'm sure, are aware, in recent weeks, Shanghai, China has imposed an extremely strict lockdown due to COVID-19. While millions and millions of ordinary citizens in Shanghai are suffering from the effects of this lockdown, one issue that has not been investigated yet is the plight of prisoners like my father, who are being held unjustly behind bars. The reason for this is possibly that there's just simply no information. There is very little that we have been able to get from either the US Consulate, who has just urged many of its non-essential staff to leave the city of Shanghai if at all possible, due to the situation imposed by these lockdowns. And so I would like the opportunity to discuss what I do know about the situation and how the public can help and also how the US government must help to release my father.
Daren Nair 06:38
Thank you for that. Harrison. As you mentioned, since we last spoke, the Chinese government has imposed one of the strictest COVID lockdowns in the world in Shanghai, which is where your father is being held. Can you just talk to us more about this, what it means for your father? Because I know his consular visits and phone calls have been cancelled as well, haven't they?
Harrison Li 07:00
Yes. So, you know, the biggest change certainly is that my father's one lifeline to the outside world, which are three times a month, seven-and-a-half-minute phone calls to his family, those were suddenly without warning cancelled. And then the only way we found out about this is after the first weekend this month, my father didn't call like he usually did. And we weren't sure if maybe if something had come up. So, we... we wrote to the Consulate. And the Consulate told us that, "oh, in fact, it turns out that... that prisoners are not being allowed to make phone calls anymore in the name of COVID-19. And, of course, that didn't sound very logical to me, because what danger is there from just spreading COVID-19 from making a phone call, right? And so, we... we demanded the US Consulate in Shanghai to request access for phone calls. Because, in fact, these... this same phone system is the only way in which consular visits can be performed, because in-person consular visits have been suspended all the way since January 2020, when COVID was first discovered, and the ordinary in-person 30-minute US consular visits were replaced by a seven-and-a-half-minute phone call, voice call with no video by the US Consulate. There were a few video calls since January 2020. But the vast majority of them have been these... these short voice calls, where there's a known history of prison authorities listening in on these conversations, as I discussed in our... in my last interview with... with Daren. And so, now, without these phone calls, the only way that my father could possibly communicate with the outside world is through letters. And these letters are even worse than the phone calls, because they have routinely in the past been delayed for weeks or even two or three months at a time. The authorities have broad and arbitrary latitude to simply deny the letters, either from coming in or from going out, because they discuss the case, no matter in how general terms or, you know, if my father requests something of his government, for example, that would be grounds for the authorities to completely censor his letters so that they never reach us. And these are not done, again, in a timely manner. And then sometimes it takes months or weeks. Inevitably, you know, we have to be the ones to follow up to check on the status of these communications. So, they're... they're... they're effectively useless as... as forms of real... real communication. So, that is why it is extremely horrifying to us that the Consulate, or rather the prison authorities, have told the Consulate that they have taken away the only way in which prisoners have access or any communications with the outside world. We are told that prisoners, including my father, are being confined to their cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These cells are tiny. They contain twelve prisoners. There is no climate control. And we don't know anything about the food situation. I mean, I've asked the Consulate twice. They have not given me a response, because they don't know what the food situation is other than vague assurances that the food situation is fine. And that is certainly not reassuring to us, given the numerous reports out of Shanghai that ordinary citizens are having trouble finding access to food. So, it really, really is frightening to think about how the conditions might be in the prison. And the worst part is, there's just simply no way of knowing.
Daren Nair 11:12
Again, I'm very sorry for your father. When was the last time you spoke to him? And how was he doing at the time?
Harrison Li 11:21
So, my father's last call to me was last month in March. And, at the time, I hear he had mentioned that he... he felt that his condition had stabilised a bit, he was finally feeling a bit better. He thinks some of the blood pressure medications and the multivitamins that he was finally being allowed to take after years of campaigning by the US government may have had some effect. But I'm afraid that this sudden lockdown, these sudden changing conditions will undo all of that progress and make things worse, because, you know, I should mention that when I pressed the Consulate for the second time about asking for phone calls, the response they got instead was that the phone system was broken. And of course, you know, it's... that's seemingly contradictory of the information that we were initially provided with just simply that the prisoners are not being permitted to make phone calls due to COVID-19. But the second time, the authorities also said, "well, you know, while this lockdown is happening, there's going to be no way for anybody to make phone calls, because we can't get anybody to fix the phone systems due to the lockdown measures in place." And so, it's... it's distressing to hear that for as long as they want, the authorities are being allowed to arbitrarily restrict the ability of prisoners to have any communication whatsoever with the outside world, other than through these letters, which are essentially as good as nothing. If you can't talk about anything, but the ordinary pleasantries, you can't talk about anything bad, you can't talk about anything at all related to the case, or my father can't express anything about getting his government to help or get him out. So it's really, really a stressful situation. And I urge the Consulate and the US Embassy in Beijing to be much more forceful in advocating for the rights of arbitrarily detained Americans like my father, to at least be granted the ability to make phone calls or another effective method of communication with the outside world.
Daren Nair 13:42
So, Harrison, your father was taken in 2016. It's coming up to six years now. How are you doing? And how have you and your family been coping with this trauma?
Harrison Li 13:53
You know, that's a very difficult question to... to answer and to summarise in a few words, because this happened all of a sudden, because my father is not someone, you know, who made a lot of money, or who had high level political connections. He was just running his own one-person small business, which served as an independent contractor for Spectrolab, which is a subsidiary of Boeing. He was the sales and marketing representative for Spectrolab through the... for the Asian Pacific region. owing to his... his background. He grew up in Shanghai, moved to the United States in his late twenties. And so, you know, he's fluent in Chinese and English and understands, of course, the Chinese culture very well having grown up in it. And I think that the sheer shock of the situation still hasn't fully receded even six years later. My father, his full time occupation in the United States, while he was here, was to own and operate two gas stations on Long Island, New York, where he was from. And for... for several years, my mother and I were the only family here in the United States. We tried our best to keep those businesses afloat. And my father, of course, wanted that. But it was just simply impossible to keep up that with the emotional toll in the situation, and, of course, also all the efforts and trying to get my father out and becoming involuntary political advocates. So, it has been extremely, extremely challenging. This is not something I would wish on... on my worst enemy. And it's... it's frustrating. It's beyond frustrating that the situation persists, and that there just doesn't seem to be any... any real movement on my... on my father's case.
Daren Nair 15:59
What is it you need the US government to do?
Harrison Li 16:02
Yeah. So, I think I'm very proud of the Congressional letter that Daren mentioned, you know, that was a product of months of work between our family, but also, of course, various offices in Congress, especially Senator Schumer's office, who has led the letter and has been a consistent advocate for my father since the beginning. And that being said, you know, I... we never got a response to that letter, despite multiple follow ups. And, you know, of course, we're not looking for the generic response that we've already received many times on previous Congressional letters, which comes from the Office of Legislative Affairs and says the statements you've seen in the media about "the safety and security of Americans detained abroad remains our highest priority," right? This is like a line that has become ingrained into our head for its sheer emptiness and vacuousness. Right, we don't need that kind of response. Right? What we need is a response that's rooted in concrete action. And so, you know, what I'd like to tell President Biden, as stated in that letter, is that he needs to spearhead a coordinated interagency effort with a concrete plan to bring my father home. And that goes beyond the State Department, because the knee-jerk response, when the White House is pressed by either these letters or the media, on these cases of wrongful detention, is to refer the case to the State Department, who then will issue one of these meaningless statements in the press in response. They have a, you know, canned response that they just slap on to every inquiry of this nature. That's not what we need. We need President Biden to actually put together, again, a broad interagency effort with concrete steps to take my... to bring my father home, a broad interagency effort with concrete steps to bring my father home. What that might look like, well, you know, one thing I can say for sure, in early December, Ambassador Jake Sullivan, who's the National Security Adviser to President Biden, held a... a virtual conference with over 20 families of Americans wrongfully detained. And I have to say that was not the most... the most satisfying conversation. They pre-screened family questions beforehand, and did not mention a single word about the Americans who were wrongfully detained in China. At the end of the call with the National Security Adviser, another family member of an American wrongfully detained in China, raised the issue of arbitrary detention in China with him. We then pressed him on whether President Biden had raised our cases with President Xi on the phone call he had had just a few weeks prior. And the response we got was not a straight answer. And it indicated to us that the President had perhaps vaguely made reference to the issue of arbitrary detention in China, but had not raised any of our cases by name. Now, I am told repeatedly that there is a very, very small list of high priority cases for Americans being detained in China. That list has names that could be read in a matter of two or three seconds. And yet the President still did not raise our cases by name. And that was enormously disheartening to us, because, you know, we had been assured that he had seen the Congressional letter at that point. And yet he still did not place enough priority on the humanity of these cases to even raise these cases by name, and instead just sweep it under the rug as just yet another one of the many, many policy challenges facing the United States and China's bilateral relationship. And so that, of course, needs to change. Now, National Security Adviser Sullivan did promise all of the family members in that call that he would follow up with each of us individually. I'm aware that he has met with a couple of the families on that call. But none of the families in China have been met with. This call took place four months ago. I don't know how much longer I'm going to have to wait to have a chance to even talk with them, however, briefly. But the... the action is... is certainly discouraging. And in terms of the demonstration that there just isn't the level of prioritisation of getting my father home at the highest levels of the White House that are needed. You mentioned, Daren, the State Department and SPEHA in particular, that's the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. They are a wonderful office, headed by Roger Carstens, who I've had the pleasure of working with since the previous administration. And they're trying their best. But, as I said before, more needs to be done. There just needs to be a broader coordinated effort, because these kinds of cases, they do take a lot of effort to resolve. But it is more... more than worth it for everybody. Because as long as my father remains arbitrarily detained in China, nobody can feel safe. No American can feel safe being in China, because as the travel advisory states, they are going to be subject to arbitrary enforcement of these local laws. I mean, they can be given harsh prison sentences for apparently furnishing any kind of information at all, no matter what the information is, even if it's freely available on the internet, they can retroactively declare that a state secret and then say you are spying on the Chinese government as an excuse to detain you for leverage over... over your government. And that's not something that has been reported nearly enough in the news media. And it's something I certainly wish the news media would report more on. I mean, there's, of course, so much in the US-China relationship, especially in recent years. But this is one of those issues that... that... that... that's been amplified by the tensions between the two countries and thus needs... needs to get the attention it deserves, so that innocent Americans, including my father, can just return home to their families.
Daren Nair 22:53
So, I've interviewed the families of, I believe, eight or nine Americans held hostage or wrongfully imprisoned overseas. And you mentioned other families have had a meeting with Jake Sullivan. I know... I know Trevor Reed's family have met with Jake Sullivan and President Biden. But they... they literally had to go and campaign at events where President Biden was, to say, "please meet us, please meet us." And they got a lot of media coverage around it. And eventually, President Biden did meet them, which was great. But is it a matter of being the loudest voice in the room if you want to get the attention you need?
Harrison Li 23:41
Yeah, I still don't know the answer to that question, but I will say this. It shouldn't take that to get a meeting with... with the President on this kind of an issue, right, especially in the case of my father. This is a wrongful detention that has spanned three administrations since the time our current President, Joe Biden, was actually Vice Pesident. And it carried through the entire four years of the Trump Administration. And now, you know, we're entering the second year of... of President Biden's Administration and my father is... is still there. And, you know, all I can say is it really should not be on the families to have to campaign so hard just to get a brief meeting with the people in charge, who actually have the ability to make the decisions. And, you know, I think the news media is certainly helpful in making it an issue that... that these families can't ignore, and also that the people in power can't ignore. But, you know, at the same time, there's also a unique difficulty with various different countries, especially China, in terms of the level of public pressure to place on these sorts of cases. The relationship between the United States and China is complicated. And, you know, there's of course, a lot of private negotiations. And all of these kinds of cases and sort of a level of public versus private is... is a difficult balance for every family to weigh, but especially, I think, you know, in the case of not just my father, but of course, the handful of other cases of arbitrary detention in China. And I think that's certainly part of why there may have been less media coverage on these cases than the cases of other countries. But that's, of course, no excuse for the government to... to be less... less forward on actually coming to a solution to these cases.
Daren Nair 23:49
What can journalists and the news media do to help?
Harrison Li 24:47
So, as I mentioned, I think the biggest thing that the media can do is just to raise awareness of this case, right, especially for those... those major publications, right, that the people in the President's inner circle are reading on a daily basis. They just need to be reminded that there are Americans, including my father, unjustly suffering in China, and they have been for many, many, many years. And that has to... that has to compete, of course, with all the other geopolitical headlines that, you know, are necessary, due to the current state of the world. But yeah, this needs to be among those... those headlines. And so it's just a matter of... of having people like the President being constantly reminded of this situation, because as... as the family of Trevor Reed has stated, you know, they felt that once they finally did get the chance to meet with the President, that he, in fact, seemed to take a very genuine and sincere interest in the case. You know, of course, the President is always described as an extremely compassionate person who remembers the humanity of these situations. But, of course, he just had so much on his plate. And so it's, you know, it's the responsibility of journalists and others, to keep the pressure up on the administration to do what's right. And that is, of course, to get these wrongfully detained Americans back home.
Daren Nair 27:27
So, what can the American public do to help?
Harrison Li 27:30
Yeah, so of course, the American public can help by spreading awareness. The best way to do that is to follow the @FreeKaiLi campaign on Twitter. The hashtag is #FreeKaiLi with no spaces, that's #FreeKaiLi. We also have a Facebook page. And on these pages, as well as the website, www.freekaili.org, you can look for various ways you can help spread awareness, which includes writing letters to your elected officials and making phone calls.
Daren Nair 27:30
So, if I'm a member of the public, and I'm listening to this podcast, and I want to write to my representatives, so a member of the House of Representatives, a Senator, a Governor, if I want to write to them or even to the White House itself, what are the key points you would want me to say in that message?
Harrison Li 28:22
So, as I mentioned before, I think the key element that is missing right now is a broad interagency effort led by the President to bring my father home, right? The case has worked its way up through the tireless advocacy of our family, and many, many others, including nonprofits and members of the government so that it does have the attention of... of SPEHA and the State Department and, you know, certain other areas of the government, but it's just not everyone that's on board. The US government is a big bureaucracy that is frustrating, beyond frustrating to try and navigate. And the only way to really bring together all of the groups that are necessary to make any real change on this issue is to go to the very top, which of course means means President Biden. So, I would... I would urge... urge that to be the main point of any letter that you choose to write. And of course, you know, feel free to reach out via Twitter, or Facebook or other means. If you have any specific questions on, you know, what to write in. And, of course, I'm more than happy to... to share my views on this and, of course, greatly appreciate your help in bringing my father home.
Daren Nair 29:45
Harrison, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Harrison Li 29:50
I think... I think I covered it all, so that we don't? We don't need to.
Daren Nair 29:54
So, well, that's good. Harrison, I've said this before, and I'll say it again, we will be right here campaigning by your side until your father comes home. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast, we're a community. If you're on Twitter, and would like to post a message of solidarity to the families or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #PodHostageDiplomacy and we'll get back to you. If you like what we're trying to do, please do consider supporting the show financially. You can do this using the support the show link in the description of this podcast episode. We're grateful for any contributions, no matter how small. Thanks again for listening, and we'll be back next week. Take care.
Harrison Li 30:03
Thank you, Daren.