An American businesswoman has been formally arrested in China on suspicion of “endangering national security” just days before Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the US for his first official state visit.
Phan Phan-Gillis, 55, who also uses the name Sandy, disappeared in late March while travelling as part of a delegation made up of local officials from her home town of Houston, Texas.
Her husband, Jeff Gillis, told US media he later discovered she had been detained by China’s Ministry of State Security and that she was suspected of espionage and stealing state secrets.
On Tuesday China’s foreign ministry confirmed Ms Phan-Gillis’s arrest on suspicion of “endangering national security” and said China hoped “other countries” would respect its right to protect its national security. A spokesman said the American was in good health and had been co-operating with the “relevant authorities”.
Mr Gillis told the Houston Chronicle he had decided to go public with the case this week because he had received little information on his wife’s case from either the Chinese or US authorities and hoped to draw attention to it while Mr Xi was in America.
The idea that his middle-aged, ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese-American wife was a spy was ludicrous, Mr Gillis told US media.
The group visited the cities of Beijing, Qingdao and Shenzhen and was crossing the border between the southern city of Zhuhai and the special administrative region of Macau on March 19 when Ms Phan-Gillis was stopped, her husband and members of the group told US media.
Mr Gillis said he only learnt of his wife’s detention when he became concerned and contacted the US Department of State on March 31. He was told she had been detained on March 20 and the state department had been informed on March 23.
He did not initially publicize his wife’s detention because he did not want to jeopardize her chances of being released but the lack of assistance or information from either the Chinese or US authorities led him to speak out this week.
The US embassy in Beijing declined to comment.
After her detention she was transferred hundreds of kilometres away to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Province, where she was formally arrested in recent days.
Judging from news reports and corporate websites, Ms Phan-Gillis has been an active promoter of Sino-US ties.
During her trip to China in March she identified herself as executive president of the America Asia Trade Promotion Association (AATPA) and president of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association.
A person who answered the phone at the Beijing offices of AATPA on Tuesday said they knew nothing about her case.
Ms Phan-Gillis has owned, co-owned or represented several companies covering a wide range of industries, from communications and finance to furniture making and other manufacturing companies, and she was once president of the US-China Association of Business Councils.
During a cultural exchange with a visiting Chinese delegation to promote the sport of shuttlecock several years ago, Ms Phan-Gillis described herself as the president of the US Shuttlecock Federation Association.
In China the definition of state secrets is broad and vague and often encompasses things that would be considered public information in other countries. Authorities regularly detain foreign citizens they suspect of spying but ethnically Chinese foreign citizens are far more likely to be held and charged.
In some previous cases aggrieved Chinese business partners have used connections to the Chinese security apparatus to settle scores in disputes.