China Imprisons for Life American Senior Citizen Charged with Spying

May 15, 2023

China on Monday sentenced 78-year-old American citizen John Shing-Wan Leung to life in prison after charging him with spying.

Details of the charges against Leung, who is a permanent resident of Hong Kong, have not been released publicly, as is typical of China’s judicial system which holds such investigations and trials behind closed doors. 

Leung was detained on April 15, 2021 by the city of Suzhou’s local counterintelligence bureau in southeastern China. His detention came after China closed its borders and imposed tight travel and other restrictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China have been rising for some time over a number of issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s saber-rattling against its island neighbor Taiwan.

Tensions heated up significantly in February after the U.S. military shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon over South Carolinian waters after it had crossed the continental U.S.

Last week, though, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held talks with senior Chinese Foreign Policy Adviser Wang Yi in Vienna. Sullivan told Wang the U.S. is “looking to move beyond” the tensions spurred by the balloon incident. The Biden Administration described the talks as “candid” and wide-ranging while Chinese officials described them as “substantive” and said both sides would “continue to make good use of this channel of strategic communication.” 

Leung’s prison sentence comes just ahead of President Biden’s scheduled travel this week to Hiroshima, Japan for the the Group of Seven (G-7) major industrial nations summit. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been reaching out to his country’s allies of late, strengthening Japan’s military stance in the face of Chinese intimidation in the region.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it was aware of Leung’s case, but could not comment further due to privacy concerns.

“The Department of State has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the embassy said in a statement.

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