A Texan detained in China without trial marked two years behind bars on Sunday, as senators lobbied the People’s Republic to return the businesswoman accused of espionage.
Sandy Phan-Gillis, 56, one of the Vietnamese “boat people” who fled the country in the 1970s, was settled in Houston, became an American citizen, and eventually brought her family over to live in the United States. She’s extensively involved in Houston’s business community and in the city’s Chinese-American community, including hosting “countless” business delegations from China and arranging civic delegations of Texans to China. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner praised Phan-Gillis’ longtime “meritorious service” to the community in a July letter to Chinese officials advocating for her release.
On March 19, 2015, Phan-Gillis was detained by China’s Ministry of State Security while attempting to cross into Macau from the border city of Zhuhai. She was in the country on a trade delegation with former Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, now sheriff of Harris County. She was denied access to a lawyer for over a year.
“I view my wife as a true American hero, and I would like to get her back,” her husband, Jeff Gillis, says on a website dedicated to saving Sandy.
Gillis said the Chinese consulate in Houston told him they didn’t believe the charges against Sandy were true, but they don’t have the power to override China’s state security apparatus.
“Sandy is not a spy or a thief,” Gillis said. “She is a hard-working businesswoman who spends huge amounts of time on nonprofit activities that benefit Houston-China relations. Sandy has been a good friend to China for decades.”
Phan-Gillis is reportedly in ill health, and is allowed monthly visits from a U.S. consular official.
In June, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Phan-Gillis’ detention and lack of access to counsel constituted an international human rights violation. “The source informs that the reasons for the detention imputed by the authorities are ‘spying’ and ‘stealing state secrets’. No further grounds have been disclosed. It is alleged that authorities have conceded that they do not possess sufficient evidence to file formal charges against Ms. Phan-Gillis,” states the UN document.
In August, China’s foreign ministry announced she had been charged with espionage.
Ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing on Saturday, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai.
“The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most consequential relationships in the world. We appreciate the importance of constructive relations between the United States and China. However, we do not believe that Mrs. Phan-Gillis’ continued detention serves the shared interests of Washington and Beijing,” the senators wrote.
“U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upcoming visit to Beijing presents an invaluable opportunity for the United States and China to create an atmosphere for strengthening relations between the United States and China under the new U.S. administration, including possible plans for a summit meeting between President Trump and President Xi,” they added.
“The release of Mrs. Phan-Gillis would go a long way towards creating such an atmosphere, and we urge your government to do so without delay.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Monday that Tillerson’s visit tried to send the message “that we want a cooperative, productive, forward-looking relationship with China.”
“There are areas we need to make progress on and deal with and address, such as North Korea,” Toner said. “And then there are areas where we disagree, and that includes trade and that also includes, frankly, human rights. And with respect to trade, we want just a level playing field for U.S. companies, but we believe that can also be turned obviously to both our advantage.”
The State Department has never confirmed the number of Americans being held by China.
On March 1, Jeff Gillis told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, chaired by Rubio, that he believes “the biggest problem right now is that there have been absolutely no consequences to China for doing this.”
“Seizing an American citizen, torturing her, there’s been no consequence. There need to be consequences,” Sandy’s husband added.
Gillis said the State Department should issue a travel advisory about the seizure of American citizens by China, and the U.S. should bar Chinese officials involved in the “arbitrary detention and torture of an American citizen” from entering the country. “I would support a policy of seizing any assets they have in the U.S. and applying them towards, you know, people that have been maltreated by their actions.”
“There is forced labor in prison and the forced labor is used to manufacture products that are frequently exported to Western countries including the U.S. Some of these products are things that would horrify us,” he said. “Christmas lights — for crying out loud — manufacturing Christmas lights with slave labor is a horrifying thought. And fact of the matter is that we really don’t do anything to try and police that. And to me, that is unconscionable.”
Gillis told the committee that the Chinese government claims his wife went on two spy missions to China 1996, but he has documentation showing she went on no international travel that year. He suspects that perhaps someone she met through her many exchanges and business dealings may have fallen out of favor with the regime, and perhaps threw out her name under torture. “It is why there are no claims that she’s done anything more recently,” he added.
The family’s congressman, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), called for Phan-Gillis’ release in a resolution co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas).
“Mr. Gillis is a very dear friend now. He started out as a constituent, but this has evolved into a friendship. And we are now on a mission of mercy. We were initially seeking justice and we still seek justice, but this is metamorphosed into a mission of mercy,” Green told the China panel.
“This is especially painful for Mr. Gillis, Mr. Chairman, because there is no playbook, there are no instructions. There’s nothing to say to him, ‘Here’s where you start and here’s what you do next.’ There’s nothing to give him a sense of where am I, where am I going. He doesn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. He only wakes up every morning knowing that he has another day to agonize over his wife’s detention. It’s especially painful for him.”