Hollywood movies and delivered meals: US student describes ‘strange’ time in Chinese detention

Five weeks after a row over a taxi fare, American Guthrie McLean found himself locked up and threatened with up to three years in jail

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 July, 2017, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 July, 2017, 6:42am

Guthrie McLean was planning to volunteer at a panda rescue centre in Sichuan last week.

Instead, the 25-year-old American student found himself in detention in eastern China over a dispute with a taxi driver.

McLean, a fourth-year student at the University of Montana, was released from a detention centre in Zhengzhou, Henan province, on Monday, but remains under investigation and cannot leave the city.

“I’m definitely doing much better now that I’m released,” he told the South China Morning Post from Zhengzhou. “I’m nervously awaiting what my status is ... I feel really frustrated at the entire situation.”

McLean’s detention stemmed from an incident six weeks ago, when his mother Jennifer McLean took a taxi back to their home in the city at around 2am. Jennifer McLean, a long-time teacher in China, paid 100 yuan for the 70-yuan cab fare, but the driver refused to give her change.

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

The fare dispute escalated into blows, and she called her son who was staying with her. McLean said he ran down from the home and saw the driver “attacking” his mother – “grabbing and hitting her with his fists” – while his mother defended herself with an iPad.

He pushed the driver to the ground, and headed inside but the driver tried to climb over the gate to the home, McLean said. He chased the driver to his taxi, and the driver drove off.

But the incident was far from over. Police arrived at McLean’s door five weeks later to take him into the police station, demanding he compensate the driver with 100,000 yuan (US$14,800) or face up to three years in jail. He was shown photos of the taxi driver on crutches, with stitches in his knee.

The officers explained away the delay by saying they hadn’t been able to find him.

“It was all very strange,” McLean said. “They showed me the pictures, photos of his severe injuries, which is impossible because I only hit him once, and not very hard.”

US student arrested in China after taxi driver dispute

McLean was charged with intentional injury and taken to a detention centre in Zhengzhou, where he shared a cell with around 20 other inmates. They slept on a deck and shared a single shower and toilet.

But it was the only cell with air conditioning and had chairs for all the inmates.

“[It was] a VIP room, if you will,” McLean said.

To his surprise, they had access to “a fair amount of movies or TV shows”, including the American superhero film Deadpool and the latest in the Fast and Furious movie franchise.

“Not a big fan, but that was something to watch, in spite of feeling worried the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t know how long they were going to keep me there for, and it was rather humiliating the entire time in that situation.”

The detention centre’s food “wasn’t great” but the detainees could order in from outside restaurants. While no one in the centre really spoke English, they asked McLean, a fluent Putonghua speaker, if he wanted to order things such as hamburgers.

“They were all nice, they treated me with respect,” he said.

Officers approached McLean on Friday to discuss his case, and he signed a statement agreeing to pay 4,000 yuan, a fraction of the original demand.

Police also ordered him to apologise to the driver, which he said he refused to do.

“I was appalled,” he said. “Why would you want me to apologise to him, if he’s not going to apologise to my mother? They said, you broke the law, and you injured [the driver].”

After lobbying by the US embassy in Beijing, friends, family and US senators, McLean was released from detention on Monday morning, just over a week after he was taken away.

He handed the driver the 4,000 yuan as he left the centre and neither party apologised, he said.

His case was still up in the air and the authorities in the US and China were trying to resolve it, he said.

Despite the entire ordeal, McLean said he blamed only the taxi driver and a few “old-fashioned thinking police officers” for trying to solicit money from him and his mother.

“I feel my actions were justified, in spite of the police officers who were in my face saying, ‘You broke the law.’”

And he said he still hoped to return to China after he graduated.

“But maybe not Zhengzhou,” he said. “Kind of had enough.”