Their release coincided with an agreement on Friday that cleared the way for a senior executive of Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications giant, to return to China.
Sept. 27, 2021Updated 10:53 p.m. ET
China has allowed two American siblings who were barred from leaving the country for more than three years to return to the United States, after a Justice Department deal that cleared the way for a senior executive of Huawei Technologies to go back to China, their lawyer said Monday.
The release of Victor Liu, a student at Georgetown University, and Cynthia Liu, a consultant at McKinsey & Company, was the latest in a series of moves that appeared intended to de-escalate tensions between the United States and China after the Huawei deal. The two had never been accused of wrongdoing but were subject to an “exit ban” preventing them from leaving China.
Their release over the weekend coincided with an agreement on Friday to release the executive, Meng Wanzhou, who spent nearly three years out on bail at her two luxurious homes in Vancouver as the United States sought her extradition in a fraud case related to Huawei’s sale of telecommunications equipment to Iran.
Ms. Meng arrived in China on Saturday.
Within hours, China released two Canadians whom it had held since shortly after Ms. Meng was detained, and who had appeared to be jailed as hostages to Ms. Meng’s case. The exchange led national security experts to worry that China had created the impression it would use hostages to gain the upper hand in diplomatic and national security matters.
The release of the two Americans on Saturday, the day after Ms. Meng’s deal was announced, will most likely strengthen that impression.
The Justice Department said in a statement on Monday that it did not cut a deal with Ms. Meng in response to the detention of Canadian and U.S. citizens. “The Justice Department reached the decision to offer a deferred prosecution agreement with Ms. Meng independently, based on the facts and the law, and an assessment of litigation risk,” Anthony Coley, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement.
The White House pushed back Monday on the idea that China had used hostages to strengthen its negotiating position. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that the deal with Ms. Meng was an action by “an independent Department of Justice,” and that her legal situation was not resolved to get prisoners released.
“I think it’s important to note, and to be very clear about this, there is no link,” Ms. Psaki said, referring to the release of the Canadians and the settlement with Ms. Meng. She said the White House had made no secret that it wanted the Canadians released.
The siblings went to China in June 2018 to visit their ailing grandfather. On the trip, their mother, also an American citizen, was detained by the police and the siblings were barred from leaving the country. Their father, Liu Changming, a former executive at a Chinese bank, was wanted by the Chinese police for his role in a fraud case. The exit ban, and the jailing of their mother, was seen as a way to coerce their father to return to China and turn himself in.
While the Biden administration said there was no deal tying the resolution of Ms. Meng’s case to the release of the siblings, their prolonged detention in China appeared to be related to Ms. Meng’s arrest in December 2018, said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University who was senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
In late 2018, President Donald J. Trump had raised the issue of Mr. and Ms. Liu’s release at a summit in Argentina with President Xi Jinping of China, and Mr. Xi had agreed to let them leave, said Mr. Medeiros, who was involved in efforts to release the siblings. But on the day the summit ended, Ms. Meng was taken into custody in Canada, and the agreement was off.
“There appears to have been a de facto linkage for China,” Mr. Medeiros said in a telephone interview.
American officials have repeatedly warned that exit bans of U.S. citizens were a major concern. In its advisory for American citizens thinking of going to China, the State Department singles them out as a risk. Often people find out that they are blocked only when they try to leave, states the advisory, “and there is no reliable mechanism or legal process to find out how long the ban might continue or to contest it in a court of law.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pressed senior Chinese officials about exit bans during talks in Anchorage in March, and raised cases of Americans trapped in exit bans during a phone call with China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, in June.
When the deputy secretary of state, Wendy R. Sherman, visited China for talks in July, she “raised the cases of American and Canadian citizens” detained in China or held under exit bans, and told Chinese officials that “people are not bargaining chips,” the State Department said at the time.
Last month, Ms. Sherman held a meeting in Washington with China’s recently arrived ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, and “reviewed issues” from her earlier talks in China, the State Department said.
The siblings’ lawyer, Marc Ginsberg, credited their release in part to a Sept. 9 phone call between President Biden and Mr. Xi. “I’m sure the president’s call with President Xi helped to break a logjam,” said Mr. Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco who has been working pro bono for Victor and Cynthia Liu.
In a telephone interview, he said Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu would have no comment for the news media.
For its part, the Chinese government also denied a trade-off on Monday between Ms. Meng and the two Canadians, and did not mention any releases from exit bans.
The Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were allowed to return to Canada after receiving medical bail, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told a regular news briefing in Beijing. She said Ms. Meng was the real victim, not them.
“The Meng Wanzhou incident is completely different in essence from the two Canadians’ cases,” she said. “As for the timing, I want to point out that the groundless detention of Meng Wanzhou is a serious mistake made by the U.S. and Canada, which they should have corrected long ago.”
The siblings’ case had been brought up with China by other U.S. officials, and Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats of Massachusetts, had also pushed for their release, as had Georgetown University, Mr. Ginsberg said.
In a joint statement hailing their release, Mr. Markey and Ms. Warren confirmed that senior State Department officials — including Mr. Blinken and Ms. Sherman — had pressed their case.
“We are so pleased to welcome Cynthia and Victor Liu back home after three difficult years being held in China as pawns for the Chinese government,” the lawmakers said. “Cynthia and Victor had their young lives completely upended.”
Unlike the Canadians, who were held for nearly three years in a Chinese prison in apparent retaliation for Ms. Meng being unable to leave Canada, Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu were not accused of crimes and were not in custody. They lived in a rented apartment in Shanghai, and Mr. Liu continued his studies at Georgetown remotely, Mr. Ginsberg said.
Their mother, Sandra Han, remains in jail, Mr. Ginsberg said.
Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu arrived in the United States on Saturday and are staying in the New York area. They grew up in Massachusetts.
“We have awaited this moment with great anticipation,” John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, said in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming Victor back to campus.”