US warns citizens of ‘arbitrary detention’ if travelling to China

The US Government has issued a sweeping new advisory warning against travel to mainland China and Hong Kong, citing the risk of “arbitrary detention” and “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

It follows similar warnings issued by the Australian and British Governments advising citizens against travelling to the region.

Several foreigners have been detained in recent months, including Australian journalist Cheng Lei, amid growing diplomatic tensions between Beijing and other foreign governments.

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith were both flown out of China earlier this month after they were questioned by Chinese authorities.

The advisory is likely to heighten tensions between the sides that have spiked since Beijing’s imposition on Hong Kong of a strict new national security law in June that has already been met with a series of US punitive actions.

Risk of ‘prolonged interrogations and extended detention’

The US advisory warned that China imposes “arbitrary detention and exit bans” to compel cooperation with investigations, pressure family members to return to China from abroad, influence civil disputes and “gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”

“US citizens traveling or residing in China or Hong Kong, may be detained without access to US consular services or information about their alleged crime.

In Hong Kong, China “unilaterally and arbitrarily exercises police and security power,” the advisory said, adding that new legislation also covers offenses committed by non-Hong Kong residents or organizations outside of Hong Kong, possibly subjecting US citizens who have publicly criticised China to a “heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution.”

When in Hong Kong, US citizens are “strongly cautioned to be aware of their surroundings and avoid demonstrations,” the advisory said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the US should “fully respect the facts and should not engage in unwarranted political manipulation” when issuing such advisories.

“Of course, foreigners in China also have an obligation to abide by Chinese laws.”

British authorities have also issued similar warnings to its citizens.

“China’s authorities have under certain circumstances detained foreigners citing ‘endangering national security’,” the British Foreign Office said in its latest advice posted on its website.

British advice previously contained no reference to the risk of arbitrary detention.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington

US and China flag side by side.
The relationship between Washington and Beijing has soured over issues like trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea, the coronavirus pandemic and Hong Kong.(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)

Last month, the Trump administration suspended or terminated three bilateral agreements with Hong Kong, covering extradition and tax exemptions, citing Beijing’s violation of its pledge for Hong Kong to retain broad autonomy for 50 years after the former British colony’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

Other Western nations have also suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong following the national security’s law’s passage.

The US has also acted to end special trade and commercial privileges that Hong Kong had enjoyed and has imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam, involved in enforcing the new security law.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington have hit their lowest point in decades amid simmering disputes over trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea, the coronavirus pandemic and, most recently, Hong Kong.

The impact of the tensions has been felt in the tit-for-tat closures of diplomatic missions as well as visa restrictions on students and journalists.

The latest travel advisory did not offer any new warnings regarding COVID-19 in mainland China and Hong Kong, but referred travellers to earlier notices advising Americans to avoid the regions and return home from them if possible.

President Donald Trump has blamed Beijing for the coronavirus outbreak in the US, deflecting criticism of his own handling of the pandemic that threatens his re-election.

The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, leading to the global pandemic.

Critics have accused Beijing of an initial cover-up attempt, although Mr Trump himself has admitted to downplaying the severity of the virus as early as February.

Wires/ABC