Kai Li was born in Shanghai, China in 1962, and immigrated to the United States in 1989 in search of a better life, working in food service to make ends meet while studying at Eastern Michigan University. Afterwards, he moved to New York and established an export business, serving as a wholesale buyer and redistributor of space solar cells and related technologies for Boeing and Hughes Aircraft.

According to the sentencing judgment of the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, Kai is convicted of furnishing five state secrets to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has insisted that these “secrets” in fact constitute information freely searchable on the Internet, and that his routine communications with US government agencies, necessary to ensure compliance with US export laws, have been grossly mischaracterized by Chinese authorities as espionage for political leverage. Unfortunately, as the US Department of State has noted in their travel warning, even common knowledge can be retroactively declared a “state secret” by the Chinese government, rendering charges of stealing secret secrets inherently arbitrary. The last American to be detained on state security charges, Sandy Phan-Gillis, was also accused of spying and furnishing state secrets to the FBI.

Kai spent over 2 months without access to any form of legal counsel under residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), a form of in communicado detention condenmed by the United Nations. Victims of RSDL have consistently reported sleep deprivation, physical torture, and forced confessions. Almost 2 years passed before a judgment was rendered against Kai, whose trial occurred behind closed doors.

Currently, Kai is serving a 10-year prison sentence at the foreign prisoners’ unit in Shanghai’s Qingpu Prison, which made headlines in late 2019 as the source of a mysterious note hidden in a Christmas card bought by a six-year-old girl in the UK, unearthing forced labor conditions and torture.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all outside visitors to the prison, including US consular visits, have been suspended indefinitely since January 2020. Kai’s only outlet to the outside world now comes through two monthly 7.5-minute phone calls to his family in New York. Kai has repeatedly emphasized that the calls are tightly monitored by various authorities, and has been threatened with severe punishment for asking for help on these calls, and for attempting to write letters to elected officials.