BEIJING — China has charged two American citizens working for an educational organization with illegally moving people across borders and plans to put them on trial, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen were detained by Chinese police late last month but have been released on bail pending trial, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Thursday.

“The authorities handling this case notified the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai in a timely manner, have arranged consular visits by U.S. consular officers, and have protected the legitimate rights and interests of two people lawfully,” he said.

The case comes at a time of high tension between the United States and China, with the protracted trade war continuing and Beijing incensed about Congress’s support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. 

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Two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, have been detained in China since December. They were arrested 10 days after Canada, acting on a U.S. extradition request, detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, who is also the daughter Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said the State Department is assisting the detained Americans. 

“We are aware of the detention of two U.S. citizens in China and the charges being brought against them by the provincial government,” he said. “We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation.”

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A State Department official in Washington said the department “has not been notified of the release of Ms. Petersen. We are in contact with Ms. Petersen and are providing all appropriate consular services.”

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Harlan founded China Horizons as an educational exchange company in 2004 after teaching English in China with his wife, Kathrine, in 2002, according to the company’s website. The company, based in Rexburg, Idaho, helps college students visit China and teach English as a second language here.

“Now they help many more people be able to experience China to the fullest,” the site says. “Jacob frequently travels from the USA to China to provide support for the teachers there.”

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GoFundMe page set up to help Harlan with legal costs says that police picked up him and his 8-year-old daughter, Viara, from their hotel in Weifang in eastern China. 

They took Harlan’s phone and computer and he was not allowed to contact his wife at home in Utah with their four other children for 48 hours, the post says. Then Viara was allowed to call her mother and leave China with a family friend.

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Harlan is still being held in a hotel near Zhenjiang, north of Shanghai, under police surveillance, the page says.

As part of China Horizons’ business, Harlan “meets these groups at the airport, gets them situated in their new homes, troubleshoots for them throughout their stays,” the page says. 

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Petersen is the company’s director, based in Rexburg, and a student at Brigham Young University at Idaho, according to a GoFundMe page her parents set up. She has been traveling to China for a decade, including for China Horizons.

She was detained on Sept. 27 and has been held in a jail in Zhenjiang ever since, her parents said. She has had no contact with anyone apart from a consular officer, who is allowed to see her only once a month, they said. 

“Alyssa has been [formally] charged with ‘Illegally moving people across borders’ which is a bogus charge as she has been doing this for 8+ years with no issues,” her parents wrote.

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Chinese officials taped and monitored the conversation, her father, Clark Petersen, told EastIdahoNews.com.

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“There was a lot of fear at first. We are Latter-day Saints, [so] we’ve fasted and prayed for her, and we’ve felt peace knowing that she is going to be OK,” he said. 

China Horizons will close its business at the end of this month, according to a post on its Facebook page, saying, “We are no longer able to send teachers to China safely.” 

“Because of the changes that are taking place in China right now, the owner, Jacob Harlan, and the director, Alyssa Petersen, have been detained in China for 13 days now and may be so for the next few months or years,” it said. “They are being charged for bogus crimes, and their families are working on getting them international lawyers to help them get back home to the states.”

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