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The story of an American man whose wife is being detained by China's secret police

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China's secret police, the Ministry of State Security, is increasingly influential in China. In the past year, China has raided several American companies and detained Chinese employees. NPR's Emily Feng tells the story of one family caught up in the security scrutiny.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: American teacher Mark Lent knew something was wrong when his wife, 50-year-old Emily Chen, texted him last December to say she'd landed in the city of Nanjing, China, but then never made it to her home.

MARK LENT: And about 20 minutes later, we got a call from the police saying that she had been apprehended by the Chinese secret police.

FENG: The Chinese secret police, known as the Ministry of State Security, or MSS - then MSS sent Lent a written notice, seen by NPR, that his wife had been moved to detention in the city of Dalian on suspicion of endangering national security. Chen's teenage son was later blocked from leaving China as well. Chen had been to Dalian just once in her life - last year as a contractor for the U.S. logistics company Safe Ports, which has done substantial work in the past with the U.S. Defense Department in the Middle East.

LENT: Her job was to find them office space in Dalian and then find the owner of the company an apartment, and that's it.

FENG: Safe Ports, who hired Chen, did not respond to a request for comment for NPR. Lent fears his wife is now wrapped up in a Chinese state investigation over Safe Ports because of its defense links.

LENT: We had no secrets, none. And she is not a spy.

FENG: The MSS, like most intelligence agencies, has always had an innate suspicion that foreign forces conspire to create dissent in China and empower rivals. It's normally very low-key.

ALEX JOSKE: But that's really been changing in the past decade and especially under Xi Jinping.

FENG: That's Alex Joske, who wrote a book called "Spies And Lies" about the MSS.

JOSKE: The MSS has created a sort of national hotline for people to report threats to national security. And it's been publicizing far more cases of espionage and foreign intelligence operations.

FENG: This past January, they announced two arrests of foreign business people they say were spying in China. And last August, they arrested a Chinese mole they say was recruited to work for the U.S. CIA. The U.S. State Department now warns Americans to reconsider travel to mainland China for fear of wrongful detention or being banned from exiting the country. The MSS has also, in recent months, been releasing ad campaigns warning Chinese citizens of apparently widespread foreign espionage in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This ad says, who am I? I come with the wind, pierce through the formless. I battle with demons. I am the MSS.

MINXIN PEI: There might be some kind of top-level authorization for the ministry to assume a higher profile.

FENG: This is Minxin Pei, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. He just published a book called "The Sentinel State" on China's low- and high-tech surveillance systems.

PEI: President Xi Jinping has elevated the status of national security, and MSS is obviously one of the apparatus to carry out his mission.

FENG: Causing a chilling effect - and it's intentional, to signal the MSS will have a greater role, even in Chinese foreign policy as tensions with the U.S. remain. Almost four months after Lent received that notice from the MSS, he has not heard much else about his wife's detention.

LENT: You know, we had a nice little life, and we planned on retiring in about five years and going and traveling and doing all these things and can't do any of it now.

FENG: Their Chinese bank accounts have been seized. He's been relying on a GoFundMe campaign for living and legal expenses. He also has been trying to get the U.S. government to help. But ultimately, Chen is a Chinese national, and her case is in China's hands. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.