Emails and diplomatic cables show how Beijing uses Covid protocols to harass and monitor Americans.
By The Editorial Board
October 25, 2022
A policeman patrols outside the U.S embassy in Beijing on September 12, 2020
PHOTO: GREG BAKER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
China’s zero-Covid policy is notorious for coercion and control of its citizens. But what isn’t known, and should be shocking, is how the U.S. government let China impose similar inhumane practices on U.S. diplomats.
Congressional sources have shared with us internal memos, emails and cables delivered to State Department senior officials over the past two years. They describe China’s mistreatment of foreign-service officers and their families assigned to the U.S. Embassy and consulates in China. Frustrated by State’s failure to stop the abuse, whistleblowers turned to Congress.
Nearly every U.S. diplomat arriving in China since fall 2020 was at risk, though not everyone was treated the same. Congressional aides say State has privately admitted that some 30 individuals were imprisoned for weeks in locked rooms and often squalid conditions. (State tells us it was only 16.) These people and other arriving diplomats have also been subject to multiple and unnecessary medical tests; forced to undergo months of quarantine and family separation; and they are monitored and controlled by China’s online “health” app.
The U.S. evacuated some 1,300 diplomats and their families from China in early 2020 when Covid hit. Through that summer State refused to let authoritarian governments use Covid as an excuse to mistreat or monitor diplomats. A July 27, 2020 cable to its foreign missions explained that State would not allow travel to a country if a U.S. employee or family would be subject to testing by foreign officials or quarantined in a foreign-government-controlled facility. Diplomats could agree to 14 days of self-quarantine.
Yet China refused to budge on its demands, and in September 2020 State agreed to sign a “limited waiver of inviolability,” essentially rolling over to China’s testing and quarantine regime for U.S. diplomats. The waiver let China impose 14 days of quarantine and require three tests (one before departure, one on arrival at the airport, and one on day 13 of quarantine). Diplomats testing positive had to stay in a “hospital” until recovered.
The whistleblower documents say China has since violated the agreement while the U.S. did little in response. In a 97-page memo sent Jan. 7, 2022 to the acting chief of the China mission, diplomats say that upon arrival they were assigned to quarantine in one of two China-selected hotels, which they suspect are “government-run.” According to the document, adults and children older than 14 were required to remain alone in their room, and in one instance this caused a teenager mental-health problems. Americans were monitored and suspect the Chinese are collecting intelligence and DNA. Families say conditions in both hotels were “unhealthy,” with moldy rooms that had “not been cleaned in months.”
Chinese personnel administer testing, and diplomats suspect the country is altering results “to achieve an additional level of control” or as “a means of harassment,” the January memo says. Numerous families who tested negative on arrival suddenly tested positive later in their quarantine. Until recently Chinese authorities transported those who tested positive not to a hospital, but to “fever clinics.”
According to a whistleblower complaint, the fever clinics are small, dirty rooms (we’ve seen pictures)—some located in converted shipping containers. The doors are locked and the windows barred. Upon arrival, individuals were required to undergo nasal and throat swabs, to provide sputum, urine and stool samples, and to submit to EKGs and CT scans. Children were tested with adult-sized nasal swabs, causing nosebleeds. Many had to be forcibly restrained for repeated nose swabs, and parents report ongoing trauma.
The facilities provided no soap, toilet paper, towels, laundry service, or even potable water. Detainees had to beg for bottled water, or wait for outside care packages. There was no TV, and in some places no wifi. Food was minimal, and one family reported their children largely received soup for every meal. Detainees reported notable weight loss. Americans were entirely at the mercy of the Chinese to provide several negative Covid tests, which often didn’t come for weeks or months.
The January memo relates the story of one family of five who had members in a fever clinic from July 24 to Sept. 25, 2021 and while there were cumulatively subject to 159 throat, nose and blood tests. Another family of four that summer spent 69 days in a fever clinic and quarantine.
Diplomats in quarantine say they were also denied urgent medical care. One family’s two-year-old fell into a coffee table, resulting in a deep cut. Two hospitals refused to treat anyone in quarantine, and it took 12 hours to find a private clinic and get the wound stitched. Another diplomat alerted Embassy personnel to stomach pain while in quarantine and was advised to ride it out. He was diagnosed with appendicitis after his release.
Americans at all times are also required to use China’s official health app, which was sold as a contact-tracing tool but the government is using to track residents. A “green” health pass is required for movement and access to buildings.
A State Department cable in July 2022 to personnel in China acknowledges that diplomats are likely to see their codes go “red” while traveling, disrupting plans. The cable offered nothing more than guidance on how to “resolve” these situations. Whistleblowers say they’re concerned the Chinese are using the app to track their movements and employing changing definitions of close contacts to target diplomats for additional quarantine.
All of this, says the January memo, has caused numerous Americans to cut short their China assignments and discouraged newcomers—“resulting in reduced Mission capacity.”
Diplomatic immunity is supposed to protect U.S. citizens, and the documents make clear that senior leaders at State were aware of the mistreatment. But the documents say State failed to fully inform or prepare incoming personnel for what to expect, failed to support those in quarantine or confinement, and failed to end the abuse.
Ambassador Nicholas Burns arrived in China in March, and a State Department official tells us: “This issue has been resolved. Since March, 609 U.S. officials and family members have arrived in [China], and none have been placed to a fever hospital. We evacuated three persons during post-travel quarantine to avoid the fever hospitals.”
The official adds that in the same period no already resident U.S. official or family member has tested positive or been evacuated. Also, State now provides U.S. personnel an Embassy letter that spells out their diplomatic rights, including that Chinese officials may not prevent diplomats from returning to their residences, compel them into facilities or permit the separation of parents from children—which State says China has agreed to define as under 18 years of age.
This is good to hear, but it doesn’t address what happened before March. And it doesn’t explain why State this spring agreed to another “inviolability” waiver that allows Chinese contact tracing.
Senate Foreign Relations ranking Member Jim Risch raised these claims of abuse in an April letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He noted that China’s behavior “potentially violates the internationally recognized human rights of U.S. diplomats, and poses a serious national security risk.”
All of this calls for an investigation on Capitol Hill with a goal of accountability up and down the chain of command. Managing relations with China is a strategic priority, but not at the expense of American diplomats.