HONG KONG—China accused American officials of harassing Chinese airline and shipping crews that arrive in the U.S. in attempts to single out Communist Party members, and warned that Beijing may retaliate against Washington for what it considers to be provocative behavior.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said U.S. law-enforcement personnel have recently conducted surprise raids on sailors aboard arriving Chinese ships and questioned arriving Chinese airline crews to ascertain whether they are members of the Communist Party. She didn’t offer details.
Ms. Hua, speaking at a routine briefing on Monday, denounced such enforcement actions as a severe political provocation designed to “provoke ideological confrontation.”
She called the actions manifestations of a revival of McCarthyism and efforts by “anti-China forces” to contain and suppress China, responding to a question about state-media reports on the alleged harassment of Chinese crews.
Beijing has lodged complaints with Washington and demanded an end to the alleged harassment, Ms. Hua said. “If the U.S. insists on escalating its provocative actions, China will definitely undertake countermeasures.”
The U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said she couldn’t comment without knowing more specifics but that the agency “is committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public.”
Application forms for foreign nationals seeking U.S. visas for temporary travel to the country, including crew member visas, have included a question on whether the applicant is “a member of or affiliated with the Communist or other totalitarian party.”
The U.S.-China bilateral relationship has slumped to its lowest level in decades as the Trump administration jousted with Beijing over trade, technological competition and other issues. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to advance the U.S. pressure, with some changes in approach.
This year the Trump administration imposed visa bans on Chinese officials allegedly involved in suppressing civil liberties in Hong Kong and committing human-rights violations in the far west Chinese region of Xinjiang—including a member of the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo.
Putting greater scrutiny on personnel with Chinese state airlines in the U.S. is part of an escalating Trump administration pressure campaign against Beijing, according to U.S. officials. The issue came up in 2016 when investigations into bribery at the United Nations led to accusations that a U.S.-based manager for Air China helped smuggle packages for the Chinese military; the manager later pleaded guilty to acting as an agent for the Chinese government.
Investigations earlier this year into the U.S. activities of Chinese researchers with ties to China’s military also found that Chinese airline personnel were reminding the researchers to wipe clean their electronic devices in case they were questioned by law enforcement before boarding. Those findings fed into the larger policy discussion about further get-tough measures against Beijing, the officials said.
Administration officials have also discussed banning entry to the U.S. by Chinese Communist Party members and their families, The Wall Street Journal reported in July.
Members of China’s ruling Communist Party participate in virtually all types of interaction that China has with the U.S., from big business to tourism and cultural exchange. The party had nearly 92 million members at the end of 2019, or roughly 7% of China’s population of 1.4 billion people, including officials, blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals in state and private businesses, as well as farmers, according to official data.
Party membership is widely seen as a prerequisite for career advancement in China. Most senior government officials, top managers of state-owned companies and senior academics are party members.
Ms. Hua’s comments came hours after a state-run newspaper, China Daily, citing sources it didn’t identify, reported that U.S. law-enforcement agents have in recent months been questioning Chinese airline and shipping crews on whether they are Communist Party members and why they joined. The newspaper said China’s Foreign Ministry had lodged multiple complaints to the U.S. about these enforcement actions, but hadn’t received “any legitimate or reasonable explanation.”
As of Nov. 11, China Daily said, U.S. law-enforcement officers and plainclothes personnel had boarded 21 ships owned by two Chinese state enterprises, Cosco Shipping Holdings Co.and Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., including 16 vessels that were inspected over the course of 25 days in October.
Cosco and Zhenhua didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Most of the affected ships were boarded immediately after they berthed, according to China Daily, which said U.S. officials conducted extensive questioning of Chinese personnel that focused on Communist Party membership and sometimes lasted several hours. Crew members were also asked about their links with the Chinese government, their views on U.S. presidential candidates and the pandemic-control situation in China, the newspaper said.
Since September, it said, U.S. law-enforcement agencies also launched surprise raids on arriving Chinese airliners on 16 occasions and questioned their crew. On three of these occasions, the questioning delved into party membership, the newspaper said. China Daily didn’t name the airlines involved.
This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal