Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

China is an independent, sovereign country. One of the chief attributes of sovereignty is the right of a country to make and enforce laws within its own borders. Just as in the United States of America, the Chinese government has the internationally recognized right to try foreigners as well as its own nationals within its territory.

Anyone who breaks the law in China is subject to prosecution under the Chinese legal system. If a person is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a Chinese court, this sentence will be served in a Chinese prison.

While in China one is subject to the same laws as is a Chinese citizen.  A U.S. passport does not entitle its bearer to any special privileges. One should not expect to receive preferential treatment or to expect that the same array of legal rights accorded one under the U.S. judicial system are necessarily applicable in China.

The Embassy or Consulate’s Role

The U.S. Embassy/Consulate cannot get you out of jail, accept custody of you, guarantee your appearance in court, post bail for you, act as your legal adviser, or pay your legal fees.

What the Embassy/Consulates Can Do:

  • Visit you in jail after being notified of your arrest to check on your health and the treatment accorded you by the police;
  • Give you a list of local English-speaking attorneys (you are responsible for paying any lawyers’ fees). In general, Chinese law does not provide for a free, court-appointed attorney.  Some jurisdictions will provide a court-appointed attorney at your request.  However, this is only available in certain cases, is offered at the discretion of the local Chinese authorities and is usually available only in the final stages prior to the court hearing.
  • Make sure the police are aware of any medical conditions you have (for example, diabetes, seafood allergies, etc.), and request that you been seen by a doctor;
  • Supply you with English-language reading material subject to prison regulations;
  • Notify your family and friends of your arrest and relay requests for financial assistance, provided you authorize the consul to do so.
  • Pass letters and messages between you and family or friends, subject to prison regulations.

The U.S. Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-579) was enacted to protect U.S. citizens against unauthorized release of information about them by the government. If you would like the Embassy or Consulate to notify your family or friends in the U.S. of your arrest or emergency situation, you must first give us written permission to do so. You may obtain the Authorization for the Release of Information Under the Privacy Act (PDF 81.8 KB) here.

The Embassy will not inform any person of your arrest without your permission. Even if your family or friends find out by other means, we will be unable to discuss your case with them without your permission. Although we routinely report to the Department of State in Washington on the condition of American prisoners in our consular district, the Department of State does not release this information to individuals without permission.