University of Montana student Guthrie McLean has been detained in China in an apprehension his mother and a family friend are calling "a shakedown."
Chinese police arrested McLean on Sunday, July 16, but he has not been charged with a crime, said Jennifer McLean, his mother, in an email Tuesday. She is requesting diplomatic intervention.
"He is in one of the worst detention centers in China," wrote Jennifer McLean, who teaches in China. "There are no separate facilities for foreign detainees, and they can hold him indefinitely without charges.
"This is a shakedown. They brought him in and demanded money for his release."
A family friend, Tom Mitchell, Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times, said the arrest took place a few weeks after an altercation between the McLeans and a cab driver.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Tuesday the agency was aware of Guthrie McLean's detention but declined further comment.
"We are aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was arrested in China," the spokesperson wrote. "When a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, the Department works to provide all appropriate consular assistance. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."
In her email, Jennifer McLean said her son spent most of his childhood in China and earned an advanced diploma from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She said he transferred to Montana from a university in Dalian, China.
On May 24, Guthrie McLean left Montana on a bus to Seattle and flew into Zhengzhou on a U.S. passport, McLean said. She said Guthrie had planned to visit historical sites and a panda rescue center.
Mitchell, who has known the McLeans since 2001, provided a narrative of the events that led to Guthrie McLean's detention.
On June 10, a taxi driver returned Jennifer McLean to her residence in Zhengzhou in Henan Province, said Mitchell. He said she handed over Chinese currency of Renminbi 100 for a RMB 70 fare, but the driver refused to provide change.
He said McLean is deaf but reads lips and speaks softly.
"In the argument that followed, the driver started to rough up Jennifer," Mitchell said. "Guthrie came down from the residence, pulled the driver off Jennifer, and pushed him to the ground. Then they went back to their apartment."
On July 16, he said, the police arrived at Jennifer's apartment, took Guthrie to a station, and told him to pay the equivalent of $14,800 for the injuries the driver said he sustained.
"I'm sure it didn't take the police and taxi driver very long to realize Jennifer doesn't have much money, and their price came down to RMB 60,000 ($8,878), which Jennifer also doesn't have," Mitchell said in an email.
Guthrie McLean was detained overnight, formally arrested Monday, July 17, and transferred to a detention center, he said.
Jennifer McLean said she and her son both had to sign statements about the incident with the cab driver.
She said Guthrie McLean told her the authorities said he would go to jail if he didn't sign the statement because he would be interfering with an investigation, but said he could go home if he signed it.
After they gave their statements, she said she and her son were placed in a "listening room" where the authorities could record their conversation. She said they compared notes about the incident and talked about how to proceed.
"I asked to be excused to the ladies' room for a moment, and they assured me I could come back, but they lied, and they locked me out and made me leave," McLean said.
"They brought me there in a police car, and I didn't know where I was. I had to walk home, (and) I don't need to tell you I am a little wary of taking taxi rides alone at night these days, and it was nearing midnight."
Jennifer McLean said she has not been allowed to have any contact with her son since his apprehension.
"Only the U.S. Embassy or consulate representative may visit him, but they are refusing because they require a formal notification from the Chinese authorities to do so," McLean said in her email.
"They also refuse to speak with me about this situation because they require him to provide a privacy waiver first.
"So he is alone, scared, (and) has no idea what is going on."
Jennifer McLean said her son is an only child, and she is a single parent. She urged people to contact U.S. Sen. Jon Tester here and request action on her son's case.
Tester's press secretary Dave Kuntz said the senator acted on word of the detainment earlier this week as soon as he learned about the situation.
“Senator Tester’s office was informed of this incident on Monday, and within minutes contacted the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in China," Kuntz said in an email. "Senator Tester is working closely and urgently with officials here and abroad to secure Mr. McLean’s quick release and to safely resolve this matter.”
Mitchell has requested that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing demand immediate visitation for Jennifer McLean, given its knowledge of her son's detention. He also said Guthrie McLean appears to be ensnared in a Catch-22.
According to an email he provided from the U.S. Embassy, Chinese authorities will notify the embassy or relevant U.S. Consulate when an American is arrested or detained in China. Once contacted, the embassy or consulate will work with Chinese authorities to set up a meeting with the American citizen and check on their welfare.
At the meeting, the consular officer will give the detained American the opportunity to sign a privacy waiver, which allows the officer to contact family and friends, the email said: "Without a signed Privacy Act waiver, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate cannot release any information regarding the detained individual."
Tester's office does not yet have assurance that the Chinese authorities have communicated with the U.S. Embassy. And the State Department spokesperson said the agency was not commenting due to privacy concerns.
Mitchell said he is worried the Zhengzhou police are deliberately stalling contact in an attempt to "shake down Jennifer." But he said she does not have a lot of money and her financial circumstances will make it difficult for her to pay for a lawyer.
"Today, the police lowered their 'settlement' price to RMB 50,000 ($7,400) and are pressuring her to pay up as soon as possible," he said.
Tuesday, Guthrie McLean should have been on his way to Sichuan to help take care of panda bears at a rescue center, Jennifer McLean said.
"He had been saving for that trip for quite a while," she said. "He was very excited about it."
Instead, Jennifer McLean said she took fresh clothing to the police station and police will take it to her son Thursday, "if they are to be believed."
She said her son's return to the United States to study at UM was a big event, and he has assimilated well despite being shy and sometimes getting tongue-tied.
UM said McLean is a senior enrolled in East Asian studies with a minor in media arts.
"He is what sociologists call a third culture kid (TCK), so part of a rising new phenomenon of a rapidly globalizing world," McLean said. "Of course he speaks English without a foreign accent, so people expected him to understand (jargon), so that led to some confusion.
"He loves Montana, especially the wildlife and mountains."
She said her son's return ticket is for Aug. 29.