(Bloomberg) -- The Chinese foreign ministry said it has detained two American citizens who run an English-teaching business in China, a development that comes amid rising diplomatic tensions and a broader trade war between the two countries.
Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen were detained in the eastern province of Jiangsu in late September “on suspicion of organizing others to cross the border,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Family members of the pair have sought to raise money over the internet to fund their defense, with the post supporting Petersen calling the charge “bogus.” The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it was “aware of the detention of two U.S. citizens in China and the charges being brought against them by the provincial government.”
“We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation,” the embassy said.
The detentions come amid what appears to be a broader crackdown on foreign teachers working in China. State-owned news agency Xinhua has reported 16 foreign teachers were arrested in July, while China Daily reported in August that thousands of teachers may be working in the country illegally.
It also comes shortly after the State Department imposed new rules on Chinese diplomats operating in the U.S., requiring them to notify the U.S. if they hold meetings with local American officials or visit educational or research institutions. The U.S. said this was a “reciprocal” measure to level the playing field with how U.S. diplomats operate in China and said it was “not directly linked to any other part of the relationship.”
China has lashed out at the new rules, saying the restrictions violate the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. In the foreign ministry briefing on Thursday, China’s Geng urged the U.S. to “correct its mistake” and withdraw the new rules.
Geng added that he “doesn’t see” how the detentions could be related to trade tensions. Chinese authorities alerted the U.S. consulate in Shanghai and arranged consular visits with U.S. diplomats for the two American citizens, he said.
Harlan in 2004 founded China Horizons, a business that helps bring teachers to China, and has been going back and forth between the U.S. and China since at least 2002, according to the company’s website.
Petersen is listed as an assistant director who has spent the last eight years “jumping in and out of China” as a volunteer and China Horizons employee.
(Updates with additional context from fourth paragraph)
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