Several media sources are reporting that an American woman was formally arrested in China on Tuesday on charges of “endangering national security”. The arrest comes less than a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to the United States for his first official visit, and could throw a diplomatic monkey-wrench into the entire affair.
Fifty-five year old Phan Phan-Gillis, who is also known as Sandy Phan-Gillis, was detained in March as she was traveling through China as part of a delegation made up of local officials from Houston, Texas who were promoting U.S. – China business ties.
There was no announcement of any sort from the Chinese authorities regarding her detention at the time. Her husband Jeff Gillis said he eventually found out she had been taken by agents of China’s Ministry of State Security who claimed she had been involved in espionage and stealing state secrets.
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When contacted by the media, the U.S. embassy in Beijing refused comment.
More on China’s arrest of American businesswoman
The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed the arrest of Phan-Gillis on suspicion of “endangering national security” on Tuesday, and said that China hoped “other countries” would understand its exercise of its right to protect national security. A foreign ministry spokesperson said that the suspect was in good health and was co-operating with the “relevant authorities”.
Jeff Gillis said he made the decision to go ahead and go public about the disappearance of his wife this week because he was getting so little information about the situation from either the Chinese or U.S. authorities. He went on to say that he was hoping the media coverage would draw attention to her unfair detention while President Xi was visiting America.
To claim that his middle-aged, ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese-American wife was a spy was ridiculous, Gillis said in media interviews.
Based on postings about Phan-Gillis’s March trip to China written online before she disappeared, she was a part of trade delegation led by acting Houston mayor Ed González and other business people.
Jeff Gillis also noted that apparently the American trade group visited the cities of Beijing, Qingdao and Shenzhen, and was at the border of the city of Zhuhai and the special administrative region of Macau on March 19th when Phan-Gillis was detained.
Mr Gillis said he did not find out about the detention until he started to get worried and called the U.S. State Department on March 31st. The State Department told him his wife had been detained on March 20th, but they had not been informed until March 23rd. The state department has offered no explanation for why it did not inform him his wife had been detained before he contacted them.
Details on Phan-Gillis detention
Gillis says that the state department eventually informed him that after her initial detention, his wife was transferred to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Province, where she has apparently now been formally arrested.
Based on reviews of news reports and various business websites, Phan-Gillis has been an active promoter of American – Chinese business relations over the last several years.
She had also identified herself as executive president of the America Asia Trade Promotion Association (AATPA) and President of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association during her trip.
However, the Beijing office of AATPA said on Tuesday said that they had no further details regarding Phan-Gillis or her case.
Digger a little deeper into official records, the Financial Times points out that Phan-Gillis has owned or represented a number of firms ranging from communications and finance to furniture making and other manufacturing businesses. She is also an ex-President of the U.S.-China Association of Business Councils.
When a Chinese delegation came to visit the U.S. to support the sport of shuttlecock a few years back, Phan-Gillis called herself as the president of the U.S. Shuttlecock Federation Association. However, the existence of such an organization cannot be verified.
China analysts also highlight that the legal definition of state secrets is extremely broad and includes much that is typically thought of as public information in other nations. By the same token, analysts note Chinese authorities detain foreign citizens they suspect of spying on a regular basis, but that ethnically Chinese foreign citizens are much more likely to be actually charged of crimes.