The arrest of two Americans working for an English teaching operation headquartered in eastern Idaho is raising additional questions after a Chinese official made a comment at a news conference Thursday.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said Alyssa Petersen and Jacob Harlan were arrested by the public security authority of Jiangsu Province between Sept. 27 and 29. In a transcript posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China website, Geng said the pair was arrested under the suspicion of illegally moving people across borders and they were released on bail. (The link works intermittently.) EastIdahoNews.com has not been able to confirm that claim.
“The US Consulate-General in Shanghai (has) arranged consular visits of American consular officials,” Geng said. “The two Americans’ legitimate rights and interests have been lawfully guaranteed.”
Harlan founded and owns China Horizons, a company that gives college students the opportunity to visit China and teach English as a second language to native Chinese speakers. Petersen works as the company’s director and attends BYU-Idaho while not in China.
Their arrest comes with rising political tensions during the current trade war between the United States and China. However, Geng told reporters, “I don’t see any connection between this case and the current China-U.S. relations.”
An unnamed source familiar with the case told The Washington Times the arrests of Harlan and Petersen comes weeks after the FBI arrested Zhongsan Liu, a Chinese government employee, for a conspiracy to fraudulently obtain U.S. visas. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, he participated in fraud since 2017 by obtaining the American visas for People’s Republic of China government employees.
“The detentions in Jiangsu appear to be a Cold War-style hostage-taking,” the source told The Washington Times of the timing of the two cases.
Petersen’s sister, Saren Combs, said on a GoFundMe page the family still doesn’t know many details. Combs said “this is going to be a lengthy process” and the family retained legal representation for Petersen as the U.S. Department of State has little contact with her.
Clark Petersen, Petersen’s father, told EastIdahoNews.com last week that the U.S. consulate officers visited her in jail for about 40 minutes. That conversation, recorded and monitored by Chinese officials, only happened after the family called the State Department, which then contacted the American Consulate in Shanghai.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s press secretary, Mary Boughton, told EastIdahoNews.com Thursday that his office is working with the State Department, but “they have been a little difficult to reach.” Risch serves as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
In a statement to EastIdahoNews.com, a State Department spokesperson said embassies and consulates abroad “have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas.”
“We are aware of the detention of two U.S. citizens in China and the charges being brought against them by the Jiangsu provincial government,” the spokesperson said. “We are aware of the detention of Alyssa Petersen and the charges being brought against her by the Jiangsu provincial government. The department has not been notified of the release of Ms. Petersen. We are in contact with Ms. Petersen and are providing all appropriate consular services.
The arrests of Harlan and Petersen received national attention Thursday, including stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. The media attention prompted organizers to announce they were taking down a GoFundMe page created to raise money for Harlan’s legal fees. The GoFundMe was still accessible Friday morning, and nearly $27,000 had been raised.
“At this point, we have raised enough money for the first round of legal proceedings that Jacob will be facing,” the page said. “This campaign has been so successful that we are receiving some of the undesired media attention that we have been trying to avoid. To try and prevent any negative consequences of this attention, we are currently taking down this campaign for the time being.”
The separate GoFundMe for Petersen has raised over $13,000.
It remains unclear how many people were in China working for China Horizons at the time of the arrests. In a Facebook post last week, the company said the incident and changing political tensions are forcing it to close.
“We’re currently in the process of bringing them all home,” the company said.
According to the Associated Press, organizing others to illegally cross the border holds a minimum two-year prison sentence. In some cases, individuals may be ordered to serve a life sentence.