China has let go two Americans who have been banned from leaving the country since 2018 and allowed them to return to the U.S. following a Justice Department deal with a Chinese technology-company executive, according to people familiar with the situation.
The exit from China of Victor Liu and Cynthia Liu over the weekend coincided with the U.S. deal last week that freed Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou and the almost simultaneous departure from China of Canadian prisoners.
A State Department official confirmed that the Massachusetts siblings, both in their 20s, returned to the U.S. on Sunday after more than three years of being subject to a vague “exit ban” from China. The pair had faced no allegations of wrongdoing in the country and were free to move around China, just not leave it.
The official said that the U.S. welcomes their return, that consular officials in Shanghai handled the matter and that the U.S. opposes the use of coercive exit bans. The official said the U.S. would continue to advocate on behalf of all American citizens in China subject to such bans and arbitrary detentions.
Their surprise release followed Ms. Meng’s agreement Friday to accept some allegations of wrongdoing leveled by the Justice Department. That ended a U.S. request of Canada—where Ms. Meng had been detained in late 2018—for her extradition on U.S. charges relating to Huawei’s business. At almost the same time that Ms. Meng left Canada for China, two Canadians jailed in China flew back home.
The Liu siblings, who couldn’t be reached through their lawyers, had become a prominent example of China’s use of extralegal exit bans that Western diplomats say have grown more common under President Xi Jinping’s rule. U.S. officials raised the case when meeting with their Chinese counterparts, according to a person familiar with the matter.
As part of its travel advisory for China, the U.S. State Department warns that exit bans on foreign nationals exemplify arbitrary enforcement of laws in that country. It says that exit bans often aren’t known to exist until a person attempts to leave and that they have been used to compel targets to cooperate with Chinese law enforcement or to pressure family members to return to China.
U.S. officials said the Justice Department’s decision to resolve the case against Ms. Meng was separate from negotiations over detained Westerners.
“The Justice Department reached the decision to offer a deferred prosecution agreement with Ms. Meng independently, based on the facts and the law, and an assessment of litigation risk,” department spokesman Anthony Coley said.
The releases have highlighted how Washington and Beijing have forged a degree of cooperation despite deep policy differences, including over justice matters.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that President Biden spoke with Mr. Xi about Huawei and the Canadians earlier this month but didn’t negotiate the issues.
The American siblings’ father is Liu Changming, a former senior executive at China’s state-owned Bank of Communications Co. , who is a fugitive from China and one of the country’s most wanted men. His whereabouts is unknown and he couldn’t be reached.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference Tuesday that the police lifted restrictions on the siblings in September “in light of progress in an investigation into their parents’ cases.” She defended the exit bans as legal and an “independent judicial procedure.”
Now in his mid-50s, the elder Mr. Liu was the top Communist Party official at the bank’s Guangzhou branch. Chinese prosecutors accuse him of making around $1.4 billion in illegal loans, according to reporting about him in the country’s government-run media. He went missing between late 2007 and early 2008, when he failed to report for a new role in the company, Chinese reports say.
His children have said publicly that they haven’t had any contact or relationship with their father for several years. Their mother, Sandra Han, a U.S. citizen who traveled with the pair to China, remains detained there, according to people familiar with the matter.
When the siblings went to China to visit relatives in 2018, Victor Liu was a sophomore at Georgetown University. Ms. Liu has been employed by McKinsey & Co., the firm formerly led by Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, who was involved with the release of his country’s two citizens last week.
A lawyer for the pair told CBS that the two were detained to pressure Liu Changming into returning to China. “We’ve done nothing wrong, and we need to go home,” Ms. Liu said in the CBS report.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who visited Victor Liu during his time in China and advocated the pair’s release, welcomed their return in a statement.
Their case was central to the reintroduction in April of legislation by Democratic and Republican senators aimed at punishing Chinese officials who use exit bans and at generating more transparency about the process.
“This unfair ‘exit ban’ policy violates international human-rights norms and has been used to keep Americans in China for years,” said a statement from the senators, Ed Markey (D., Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla). Mr. Markey and Ms. Warren said in a statement Monday that they would continue to work with the Biden administration to secure Ms. Han’s release.
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