An American businesswoman held in China since last year has been charged with spying, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, the latest development in a case that has added to U.S.-China tension.
Sandy Phan-Gillis, a resident of Houston, Texas who has Chinese ancestry and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested in March 2015 and had been held without charges since then.
“Based on our understanding, Phan-Gillis, because of her suspected crimes of espionage, has been charged according to law by the relevant Chinese department,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing. “China is a country ruled by law. The relevant Chinese department will handle the case strictly according to law,” she said, without elaborating.
It is unclear what violations the charge covers.
The State Department has urged China to resolve the case “expeditiously.”
The Chinese government has chided the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for saying her detention violated international human rights norms.
That charge comes amid heightened tension in U.S.-China relations, dogged by issues ranging from differences over territorial disputes in the South China Sea to the sentencing in the United States of a Chinese national for conspiracy to hack sensitive military information.
The Chinese man, Su Bin, 51, was sentenced this July to 46 months in jail, after pleading guilty to conspiring to hack into the computer networks of major U.S. defense contractors.
Phan-Gillis has said, in a letter dictated to a U.S. consular official in China, that her detention is because of politics and not due to any crime. She visited China on a trade delegation from Houston and was detained while attempting to cross the border between the southern city of Zhuhai and the peninsula of Macau. Her husband, Jeff Gillis, has insisted repeatedly that she is not a spy or a thief.
China’s State Secrets Law is extremely broad, encompassing everything from industrial data to top leaders’ birthdays. Information can also be declared a state secret retroactively.
There is no independent oversight of China’s law enforcement authorities or courts, which answer to the ruling Communist Party.
Regardless of the Phan-Gillis issue, President Barack Obama is due to arrive in China on Saturday for a G20 summit in the city of Hangzhou.