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United States

Embassy officials visit US student detained in China over row with taxi driver

Mother of Guthrie McLean, 25, who has yet to be allowed to visit her son, says he is ‘enduring’ in captivity

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 11:48am

US embassy officials on Thursday visited the American university student detained in China over an altercation with a taxi driver, as family and friends continue to lobby for his release.

Guthrie McLean, a 25-year-old student at the University of Montana, is being held at a detention centre in Zhengzhou, Henan province. He was visited by officials from the US consulate in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, according to the office of Montana Senator Jon Tester.

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The officials confirmed that McLean had no “physical or mental health concerns” and had been given access to legal resources, the office said in a statement.

His mother, Jennifer McLean, however, told the Associated Press: “Fine is a bit of an overstatement. He is enduring.”

She added that she had yet to be allowed to see her son.

McLean was detained by police on Sunday and charged with intentional injury after becoming involved in a dispute between his mother and a taxi driver on June 10.

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According to Tom Mitchell, a long-time family friend and Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times, the driver refused to give Mrs McLean, who is deaf and teaches sign language in China, 30 yuan in change after driving her to her home in Zhengzhou. In the ensuing argument, the driver threw a 10 yuan note at the woman and things “escalated from there”.

The driver then tried to snatch Mrs McLean’s bags and was “pushing her around” when her son came out from the house to see what was going on. He pulled the driver off his mother and pushed him to the ground, Mitchell said.

The driver claimed he hurt his knee in the altercation, for which police demanded 100,000 yuan (US$14,800) in compensation from McLean. They later lowered the sum to 50,000 yuan.

“Guthrie was only defending his mother,” Mitchell said on Friday. “He’s a very gentle, quiet kid. He’s not the type of kid who goes around picking fights with anyone.”

Mrs McLean told the Post on Thursday that she does not know when she will be able to visit her son.

“[The situation] is very frustrating,” she said. “They have not said if, or when, he will be released.”

Mitchell said he is confident police will reassess their monetary demands after they have “the full story”, suggesting that the driver likely lowered his compensatory demands after realising the McLeans could not pay the initial amount.

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“I also doubt his injuries are serious if he waited five weeks to demand compensation,” Mitchell added.

The Zhengzhou public security bureau did not respond to repeated calls, but said earlier it does not comment on individual cases. The city government also did not respond to requests for comment.

Two senators from Montana have been working with government officials from China and the US in a bid to reunite the McLeans.

Senator Steve Daines visited Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, on Thursday to “urge a prompt resolution” to Guthrie’s case, while working with US ambassador to China Terry Branstad.

His chief of staff Jason Thielman said they were pushing to reunite Mrs McLean with her son “as soon as possible”, as she is “sick with worry”.

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“This was a young man who stepped in to protect his mother who is deaf and is in China to help teach sign language to hearing impaired Chinese children,” Daines said in a statement, adding that he hoped “justice can be quickly served”.

Senator Tester said he was “very concerned” about McLean’s detainment, and was working “around the clock to push for his safe and quick release.”

“We are keeping an open dialogue with the State Department, the embassy in China, and Guthrie’s mother to ensure he remains safe and healthy until he’s released – hopefully as soon as possible,” he said in a statement.

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McLean’s friend and classmate Zakk Winch described the entire situation as “appalling” and “beyond surprising”.

“When a foreign national is being imprisoned within a country, it is hard to say if I can truly hold faith about them being completely honest about what happened,” he told the Post by phone. “[Guthrie] would never hurt a fly and this is appalling that something like this could happen.”

Winch set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the McLeans, and has so far raised US$435 of his intended goal of US$7,500, the amount police are requesting.

Guthrie McLean has lived in China since 2001, and was recently planning a trip to Sichuan to volunteer at a panda rescue centre. His mother described him as a “very sweet, caring person who has many friends in China”.