13 Apr 2022

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department ordered nonessential employees at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai, China to leave the city due to increasing restrictions related to COVID-19.

Harrison Li is the son of Kai Li, a U.S. citizen serving a 10-year sentence at Qingpu Prison in Shanghai. He says the U.S. Consulate’s latest order comes despite the Consulate having done “next to nothing” to advocate for the most vulnerable Americans in Shanghai: the incarcerated.

According to Li, the Consulate was informed last week that prisoners at Qingpu would not be able to make phone calls until further notice. This includes phone calls from consular officers, which, since 2020, have substituted for monthly in-person consular visits required by the U.S.-China Consular Convention of 1980.

Li added that the ban on phone calls effectively cuts off prisoners’ only means of communication with the outside world, making it impossible to obtain updates on the well-being of prisoners including his father, who has suffered a stroke behind bars.

“There are widespread reports of ordinary citizens in Shanghai who are unable to procure even basic necessities. I shudder to think of how much worse conditions might be in prison. Because phone calls have been suddenly banned, nobody has any way of knowing, other than relying on the word of the prison authorities, who are incentivized to paint a rosy picture of prison conditions,” Li said in a written statement.

Prisoners at Qingpu are also now being confined to their cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Li says the cell where his father is held holds 12 people in a very small area and lacks any climate control.

Qingpu Prison came under global media scrutiny in 2019 when a Christmas card purchased in the UK contained a note allegedly from a foreign inmate at the prison who claimed to be “forced to work against [their] will” and called for the attention of human rights organizations.

Last November, a bipartisan group of 15 Senators and members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden urging him to prioritize the release of Kai Li. Congress and Li’s family never received a response.

Shortly afterwards, American Daniel Hsu, who was prevented from leaving China for over four years under an “exit ban”, was allowed to return home in advance of a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But Li says there has been little movement on his father’s case, stating that in the November call, President Biden only made an oblique reference to the general issue of arbitrary detention, without bringing up any cases by name. There is no indication his father’s case was raised by the President in any subsequent engagement.

He stressed the need for President Biden to initiate a coordinated, interagency effort to bring home his father and other Americans arbitrarily detained in China. Li said he feels his family’s advocacy efforts on behalf of his father are hampered by government bureaucracy and lack of effective coordination across government agencies.

Li hopes to meet with the President as soon as possible, noting that in March, President Biden met with the family of Trevor Reed, an American and former U.S. Marine detained in Russia.