pair of American English teachers have been detained in China on what their company calls “bogus” charges of organizing others to illegally cross the border
Jacob Harlan is the owner of China Horizons while Alyssa Petersen is the company’s director. Based in Rexburg, Idaho, the company helps college students go to China to teach English.
According to Harlan’s page, he was taken from his hotel room on the morning of September 28. He was with his 8-year-old daughter, Viara, at the time. After 48 hours, authorities allowed Viara to call her mom in Utah but not tell her what happened or their specific location. Later, the little girl was allowed to fly back to the US while accompanied by a family friend.
Meanwhile, Petersen’s page says that she was arrested on September 27 and was not heard from for two weeks afterward until her family contacted the US State Department which located her in a jail in the city of Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province.
“We received information that she is doing okay, She wakes up when told, she goes to sleep when told,” her family writes. “She spends her day in a Jail Cell or walking in a circle counting steps. She cannot have any contact with anyone outside of a Consulate Officer who can visit once a month and a Lawyer.”
After reports of the detentions were published by foreign media outlets, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang confirmed at a regular press briefing on Thursday that the pair had been arrested by police in Jiangsu in late September for organizing others to illegally cross the border.
“The department handling the case has informed the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai in a timely manner, arranged U.S. diplomats to conduct consular visits and protected the legitimate rights and interests of the two,” Geng said.
The crime that Harlan and Petersen are being suspected of carries a minimum two-year prison sentence. More severe cases can result in life imprisonment. While it is generally applied to human traffickers, it has also been used in the past against those accused of conducting missionary work.
Last March, the charge was used to sentence Reverend John Sanqiang Cao, a US permanent resident based in North Carolina, to seven years in prison.
Though the website of China Horizons espouses no explicit religious declarations, the company appears to have drawn most of its students from the nearby campus of Brigham Young University-Idaho, a school affiliated, of course, with the Mormon church. Petersen herself attended the school and was previously a Mormon missionary.
China Horizons itself, however, appears to be blaming the arrests on the US-China trade war.
“Unfortunately, because of increasing political and economic problems between the US and China, we are no longer able to send teachers to china safely. As a result, our company will be closing our doors at the end of October,” the company wrote on Facebook.
“We hope that one day the relationship the United States has with China will be in a better place. May your time in China stay with you and help you to have a positive impact on the world.”