A Koch Executive's Harassment in China Adds to Fears Among Visitors

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Osaka, Japan, last month. — Erin Schaff/The New York Times

A Koch Industries executive was told he could not leave China. An ex-diplomat who helped organize a technology forum in Beijing was hassled by authorities who wanted to question him. An industry group developed contingency plans in case its offices were raided and computer servers were seized.

Business executives, Washington officials and other frequent visitors to China who were interviewed by The New York Times expressed increasing alarm about the Chinese authorities’ harassment of Americans by holding them for questioning and preventing them from leaving the country.

They worry that trade tensions between Washington and Beijing could turn businesspeople and former officials into potential targets. Some companies are reviewing or beefing up their plans in case one of their employees faces problems, three people said.

Many of the more than a dozen people interviewed by The Times asked for anonymity because they feared reprisals from the Chinese authorities.

“In a very not-so-subtle manner, the Chinese government has upped the ante by detaining Americans at the borders and at their hotels, and with the obvious intent to send a message to the Trump administration that they can engage in hostage diplomacy if push comes to shove,” said James Zimmerman, a partner in the Beijing office of the law firm Perkins Coie, which works with U.S. companies in China.

“If they go in that direction, this would not be received well by the American business community, which puts at risk billions of dollars of investment in China,” he said.

The problems escalated after Canadian officials arrested an executive of Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, at the behest of U.S. officials. China then detained a Canadian businessman and a former diplomat.

The fear spreading through the U.S. business community highlights how fraught ties between the world’s two largest economies have become. Although President Donald Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, have agreed to restart trade talks, which broke off in May, the two sides remain far apart on the most contentious issues.

Many U.S. business figures still come and go without major incident. Elon Musk, the chief executive of electric-car maker Tesla, was offered permanent residency by Li Keqiang, China’s premier, after he visited China in January to open a factory.

Still, a number of recent run-ins with the authorities have prompted broader worries. In late June, one U.S. industry group sent an email to its members detailing how it was trying to mitigate its own risks.

“Foreign staff in particular have reported a high level of anxiety about the current environment,” it said in the message, which was reviewed by The Times. It said it was “in the process of finalizing a detailed crisis plan to be used in the event that one of our offices is raided and/or one of our staff is detained.”

Those plans included a procedure if its servers were seized. It also said it had reviewed insurance policies to ensure that staff evacuations were covered, and it recommended that workers not travel to sensitive parts of China.

In early June, a Chinese American executive at Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, was told he could not leave the immediate vicinity of his hotel in southern China, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. He was then interrogated for multiple days, with the discussion hitting on the trade war and souring relations between the United States and China.

While the authorities told the man that he would not be allowed to leave China, they did not take his passport. After the State Department intervened, tensions subsided and he was able to fly out of the country, the people added.

Given some of the discussion, two of the people with knowledge of the episode involving the Koch Industries executive said they believed it was an attempt to send a message to Trump.

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