China on Monday said that it has barred three reported US citizens — a woman and her two grown children — from leaving the country because they are suspected of “economic crimes”.
According to the New York Times, Chinese-born Sandra Han and her children, Cynthia and Victor Liu, were prevented from leaving the country after they arrived in June.
The children say police are preventing them from returning home to compel their father, a former executive at a Chinese state-owned bank, to return to China to face criminal charges, according to the Times.
Their mother is allegedly being held in a secret site known as a “black jail”, the Times reported.
The siblings told American officials and family associates that they were prevented from flying home despite not having been charged with a crime, the newspaper said.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday defended the decision.
“As we understand it from the relevant authorities, these people you have mentioned all have legal and valid identity documents as Chinese citizens,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing.
“They are suspected of having committed economic crimes and have been restricted from leaving China by Chinese police.”
Chinese law does not recognise dual citizenship.
While China is known to bar naturalised foreign citizens who are former Chinese nationals from leaving, it is rare that one of those being held was born in the United States.
The US State Department issued a travel advisory in January, warning its citizens about the use of “exit bans” to compel American nationals to resolve disputes or compel family members or colleagues to cooperate with Chinese authorities.
US-born Victor, 19, was set to start his second year at Georgetown University while his sister, Cynthia, 27, was heading back to work with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, according to the Times.
They have unsuccessfully tried to leave three times and have been moving between cities and living with an uncle, the paper reported.
The siblings claim they are innocent and are being used to pressure their father, Liu Changming, a wanted man in China.
A former executive at the Bank of Communications, Liu is accused of helping to carry out one of the country’s biggest bank frauds, in which $1.4 billion in illegal loans were issued to property developers.
He fled China in 2007 and his children say he is estranged from the family, cutting off ties in 2012.
The US embassy in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.