It was the summer of 2016, and Li was about to resume his studies at Harvard. After dropping him off, his father returned to Long Island, where he was making final preparations for his own trip to Shanghai.
Kai Li was born in Shanghai, and he was returning to the city for a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death. However when his plane landed, he was met not by his family, but state security agents — beginning a years-long ordeal that resulted, in July 2018, in him being sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.
The Li family maintains that the charges are trumped up and politically motivated. The case, which was held behind closed doors and has not been widely publicized, revolves around supposed state secrets that Li and his lawyer argue are freely available online, as well as communications with the United States government that are routine for people doing cross-border business.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a faxed request for comment from CNN on the case.
Kai Li appeared to be an American success story. Born in Shanghai in 1962, he emigrated to the US aged 27 to study, and later became an American citizen. A natural entrepreneur, he opened two gas stations on Long Island and also a export business, serving as a wholesale buyer and distributor of solar cells and related technologies for major US aerospace firms. China is among the largest manufacturers of solar equipment in the world.
For his export business, Li regularly traveled to the country to meet with clients, as well as to visit his extended family.
“My father would visit China a couple of times a year, for two or three weeks at a time,” Harrison Li said. “He’s been doing that for 20-plus years.”
Prior to being detained by state security at the airport in Shanghai, Harrison Li said the family had no idea anything might be amiss. While the motivation behind the case is unclear, Kai Li has since suggested to his son that it could have been prompted by a business rival seeking to get him in trouble with the authorities.
China’s justice system is particularly opaque — especially when it comes to cases regarding state security. No details about Li’s case have been published in China, either by the court or state media. Li’s eventual trial was held behind closed doors, without US officials present.
During that time, US consular officials alerted Li’s family to his situation, but were unable to visit him. According to US lawmakers and Li’s family, he was denied access to a lawyer during his initial detention.
For two months, he was held in a small cell, without a bed, forced to sleep on the floor, fed little, and interrogated at all hours, Harrison Li said. Eventually, he was transferred to a regular prison and charged with furnishing Chinese state secrets to the FBI. His family maintains that normal business actions by Li have been “grossly mischaracterized by Chinese authorities as espionage for political leverage.”
Kai Li was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, and moved to Shanghai’s Qingpu prison.
“We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China,” the message read. “Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization.”
The scandal forced supermarket chain Tesco to drop its Chinese supplier, though authorities in the country denied accusations of forced labor.
Humphrey said he regularly witnessed beatings and prisoners being forced to write confessions or being held in solitary confinement. He said he was denied medical treatment for prostate issues, and worried about his health.
Kai Li’s health has also suffered, his son said: “In his last two calls he complained for the first time about issues with his heart, of an irregular heartbeat and occasional numbness in his arm.”
Harrison Li said the prison doctor gave his father a blood pressure test and prescribed him a blood thinner, but would not respond to requests for a more thorough medical examination.
He added that Kai Li is careful in phone calls and letters, reminding his family that they are “closely monitored.”
Though so far Kai Li has remained coronavirus free, the pandemic has affected him in other ways.
“The level of nutrition at the prison has gone down significantly,” the younger Li said. “There’s no longer any fruits or vegetables in the diet or even available for purchase anymore. He asked to be able to get multivitamins, or even to buy them at the commissary, but that has been rejected.”
Harrison Li said the pandemic has also essentially cut Kai Li, and other foreign prisoners, off from the outside world, with no consular visits allowed since the virus began spreading in China in January.
In an email, a US State Department official confirmed this, saying the Chinese government “suspended all in-person visits to detention centers and prisons on January 23, 2020 in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of US citizens overseas,” the official added. “During this suspension, our consular officers have been able to reach most U.S. citizen prisoners serving their sentences in China by phone in lieu of in-person consular visits. The US Mission China team continues to seek access to all persons in custody, and will resume regular in-person visits to detained U.S. citizens in accordance with guidance from health authorities once the Chinese government lifts its restrictions on consular visits.”
In a letter to Trump in February last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other lawmakers urged the President to be a “vociferous advocate” for Kai Li’s release.
“This painful ordeal has gone on for far too long and caused immeasurable harm to Mr. Li and immense pain for his family in New York,” the lawmakers wrote.
“As Secretary Pompeo has previously met with the loved ones of many Americans wrongfully detained abroad, I hope to get the opportunity to plead my father’s case to him directly in the near future,” Li added.
“My father is part of a broader pattern of the Chinese government charging foreign citizens on state security charges,” Harrison Li said. “It really highlights the danger for Americans looking to do business in China.”
People may see headlines about the two Canadians, he said, but “this happens to Americans too.”
Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, has said the law would ensure “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” with the proposed bill “in line with the (city’s) rule of law.”
But Harrison Li said it could result in “political prosecutions.”
“(My father’s) detention illustrates that China’s national security laws are inherently arbitrary and can be used to exploit foreign citizens for political leverage,” he said. “That’s something important for Americans to be aware of.”