In late June, the authorities tried to interrogate a former Beijing-based American diplomat, according to three people with knowledge of the incident. The former diplomat had been attending an artificial intelligence forum in Beijing, which he helped organize, when a hotel employee called his room on the night of June 25, saying that government security officers in the lobby wanted to speak with him. Alarmed, the former diplomat emailed the other American conference attendees, then went down.
Two plainclothes officers asked him to go with them to answer questions. They asked him about his diplomatic status and whether he had diplomatic immunity, the people said. They demanded to see his passport, which he refused to show.
The former diplomat called American Embassy officials. After a few senior diplomats arrived, the Chinese officers left, the people said.
Other run-ins create an atmosphere of intimidation. Early this year, a technology industry executive who has traveled to and worked in China for more than a decade without major incident encountered authorities in a smaller city in eastern China, according to an account from the person, who asked not to be identified publicly for fear of retaliation.
While the executive was traveling between meetings, a black car appeared to be following, often taking no precautions to disguise its presence. When the executive arrived at the airport to leave, a group of about six men with earpieces and bulletproof vests emerged from the car. One carried a visible sidearm, and another filmed the executive. Two of the men then followed the executive through security to the airport gate before the executive flew out.
As the trade war has intensified, China has tried to use American businesses to send a message to the Trump administration. It summoned American executives in June to warn them that they would suffer if they followed the administration’s proposed ban on sales of American technology. Businesspeople have taken new steps to reduce their profiles when traveling in China, including using burner phones and wiping laptops that may contain sensitive information, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
Over all, that has led to growing nervousness among businesspeople.
“A lot of Western businesses are not willing to speak up loudly because they think things could get worse,” said Peter Humphrey, a British private investigator who was imprisoned in China in 2013 while working for GlaxoSmithKline. Now living in Britain, he advises companies on security and business issues in China and says his clients face growing retaliation.
“I believe we are seeing the worst environment since the Cultural Revolution,” he added, “in terms of the extent to which people are under surveillance and control, and the extent to which people are punished.”
Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting from New York.