DALLAS (AP) — Phan Phan-Gillis was visiting China last spring as part of an American trade delegation that included the mayor pro tem of Houston and others who were promoting business opportunities in the nation's fourth-largest city.
But after passing through security at a border checkpoint, the 55-year-old Texas businesswoman mysteriously disappeared from her group.
On Tuesday, her husband disclosed that she's been detained by the Chinese government for the last six months on suspicion of spying and stealing state secrets. Now he's asking the president and the State Department to help win her release.
Jeff Gillis denies the accusations against his wife, who has been accused by the Chinese Foreign Ministry with threatening China's national security.
Although she has not been charged, she was formally arrested over the weekend and moved to a more secure detention facility in the southern city of Nanning, according to her husband, who said the arrest allows Chinese authorities to continue their espionage investigation.
His wife has been visited six times by American consular officers since her March 20 arrest, according to the State Department, which said it was closely monitoring the case.
"We've raised her case with Chinese government officials on multiple occasions at a very senior level," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday during a media briefing. The White House has also raised the matter with the Chinese foreign ministry and "not received what we believe to be an adequate response."
Phan-Gillis, known as Sandy to family and friends, is a Vietnamese-American of Chinese descent who has lived in Houston for about 30 years.
Gillis, who until now has not publicly disclosed his wife's detention, decided to discuss her arrest with reporters because Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting the U.S. this week. Gillis said he hoped the timing of the publicity would pressure Beijing and Washington to act.
"If nothing else, at least convey to the Chinese about the idiocy of arresting an American citizen on these politicized charges of spying and stealing state secrets," he said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the woman was healthy, but Gillis said his wife suffers from high blood pressure and other complications and has been hospitalized twice during her incarceration.
Chinese law allows authorities to detain a suspect for up to six months during an investigation, Simon Tang, a lawyer for the Gillis family, told the Houston Chronicle. After that period, the government has a month to issue charges or present its case in court, although it can seek extensions.
Tang did not return text and phone messages from The Associated Press.
Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez said he and Phan-Gillis were part of a five-member delegation that spent a week in China in March, speaking with Chinese entrepreneurs interested in the Houston area.
Phan-Gillis was a business consultant who traveled regularly to China and who also served as president of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Organization, according to Gonzalez and Gillis. She often worked as an intermediary in ventures between U.S. and Chinese business interests.
Gonzalez said members of the delegation were surprised when Phan-Gillis did not meet them after the group passed through the checkpoint at Macau, across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. She later contacted the delegation to say she was attending to a "personal matter."
"It's just so bizarre," Gonzalez said. "There was nothing out of the ordinary for a business development trip."
Gillis said he's researched cases of more than a dozen foreigners detained in China in recent years allegedly for compromising state secrets. In about half the cases, the suspects were released within six months, he said, but the others were held for years.
"I'm very frightened," he said, "that if we don't get her out this week, then her chances are not very good."
Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.