BEIJING — China said Thursday it detained two U.S. citizens on suspicion of organizing others to illegally cross the border, amid sharpening tensions between the sides over trade, technology and other sensitive issues.
Police in the eastern province of Jiangsu arrested Alyssa Petersen and Jacob Harlan on Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
"The department handling the case has informed the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai in a timely manner, arranged U.S. diplomats to conduct consular visits and protected the legitimate rights and interests of the two," Geng said at a regular press briefing.
Harlan is the owner and Petersen the director of a Rexburg, Idaho-based organization called China Horizons, whose website says it is an English teaching program that offers an "immersive experience within a Chinese school."
However, a post on the 17-year-old group's Facebook page dated Saturday said it would be shutting down at the end of the month.
"Unfortunately, because of increasing political and economic problems between the U.S. and China, we are no longer able to send teachers to china safely," the post said.
It said Harlan and Petersen may be detained "for the next few months or years."
"They are being charged for bogus crimes and their families are working on getting them international lawyers to help them get back home to the States," the post said.
The charge of organizing others to illegally cross the border carries a minimum sentence of two years, with punishment as severe as life imprisonment under certain circumstances.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing confirmed that it's aware of the detentions and the charges brought against the two but gave no further details.
Police in the Jiangsu city of Zhenjiang, where the two are being held, did not immediately respond to questions submitted by phone and fax.
A pair of GoFundMe sites set up for Harlan and Petersen has raised nearly $40,000 toward their legal defense and other expenses.
According to Harlan's site, he is a father of five from Utah who was taken from his hotel room on the morning of Sept. 28, along with his 8-year-old daughter, Viara.
It said that Viara Harlan was allowed to make a brief call to her mother in Utah after 48 hours, but not permitted to disclose her location or say anything about what had happened. Police later allowed her to fly home to the U.S. accompanied by a family friend, according to the site.
Petersen's page says she was held incommunicado for two weeks after being taken away by police and was located only after her family went to the State Department for assistance.
"We received information that she is doing OK. She wakes up when told, she goes to sleep when told. She spends her day in a jail cell or walking in a circle counting steps," the site said.
The site said Petersen taught and trained the group's teachers, ran the Rexburg home office and attended Brigham Young University-Idaho, a school affiliated with the Mormon church.
While the charge of organizing others to illegally cross the border generally applies to human traffickers, it has also been used in the past against those accused of conducting missionary work in China, which the officially atheist communist government strictly forbids. Last year, a U.S. missionary, the Rev. John Sanqiang Cao, was sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charge.
The case comes as relations have soured between Beijing and Washington over a range of issues, including punitive U.S. tariffs leveled on Chinese exports over accusations that China cheats on trade and uses theft or coercion to illicitly obtain American technology.
They have also tangled over U.S. criticism of Chinese human rights abuses, the handling of increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong and China's assertion of its claims to virtually the entire South China Sea.
Geng, however, downplayed the possibility of outside factors weighing on Petersen and Harlan's cases.
"I did not see any specific connection between this matter and the current China-U.S. relations," he told reporters.