Sandy Phan-Gillis, a 55-year-old Houston businesswoman, and naturalized U.S. citizen, visited China last spring as part of a five-member American trade delegation. The group included Houston’s former mayor pro tem Ed Gonzalez and leaders to promote business opportunities in Houston. (China is second only to Mexico in trade with Houston. In 2014, alone, import/exports between Houston and China totaled $16.6 billion, up from $13.6 billion in 2013.)
She’s still there, one year later — but not for business. She’s in prison, accused of espionage, a charge she and her family deny.
At one point in the trip, after passing through security at a border checkpoint in Macau, Phan-Gillis disappeared.
The Chinese government detained her, suspecting that she was a spy, stealing state secrets. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims Phan-Gillis is “threatening China’s national security.”
Since March 19, 2015, Phan-Gillis has been detained, without due process, reportedly undergoing constant interrogation. And, according to Newsweek, “There are no charges, much less a public arraignment and trial, in sight.”
Phan-Gillis is Vietnamese-American of Chinese descent who has lived in Houston for roughly 30 years. Her husband, Jeff Gillis, told the media that his wife suffers from high blood pressure and has been hospitalized twice during her incarceration. “I really want to get her out,” he said. ” I still don’t understand what is going on. She has done so much for U.S. China relations, it astounds me to think that China would act this way to a really good friend.”
Simon Tang, a Gillis family attorney, told the Houston Chronicle that Chinese law dictates that a suspect can be detained for up to six months during an investigation, after which the government has one month to press charges and/or present its case in court. It can also ask for an extension to prolong the investigation.
The State Department claims it has been closely monitoring the case. “We’ve raised her case with Chinese government officials on multiple occasions at a very senior level,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the media last Fall. The White House raised the issue with the Chinese foreign ministry, but did not receive what it “believe[d] to be an adequate response.”
This trip was not Phan-Gillis’s first time in China. She’s traveled regularly to China as a business consultant and as the president of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Organization. The Houston Chronicle writes that Shenzhen, is an “economic powerhouse with its own stock exchange that’s known as China’s Silicon Valley.” And, as its president, “Phan-Gillis presided over one of the largest economic impact sister city groups in the country.”
Jeff Gillis says:
“My wife is not a spy; she is not a thief. She is a hardworking businesswoman who spends huge amounts of time on nonprofit activities that benefit Houston-China relations.”
Her arrest could be retaliation, in response to the U.S. arresting several Chinese nationals over the last few years.
However, unlike the U.S., no “due process” exists in China.
In 2013, six Chinese nationals were charged with “conspiracy to steal specially engineered rice and other seeds” from an Arkansan company. In 2014, five Chinese military officers were indicted with cyber-theft of U.S. energy, steel and aluminum companies’ secrets, and for hacking into trade unions. In 2015, one Chinese professor was arrested and charged for stealing U.S. cellphone technology.
Recently, a Canadian missionary couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, who lived in China for decades and ran a coffee shop near the North Korean border, were arrested on charges of stealing state secrets. And, this January, the BBC reported that a Swedish human rights activist, Peter Dahlin, was held for three weeks, suspected for endangering national security. He was released after he agreed to participate in a staged television confession, stating that he had broken the law and “caused harm to the Chinese government and hurt the Chinese public.”
“If the U.S. isn’t offering up something the Chinese want, why would they release her just because a U.S. official asked?”
Phan-Gillis has been held hostage by the Chinese since March 19, 2015. Americans concerned for her release can contact the State Department here.