Li, an assistant professor of practice management, contacted his sister in China two weeks ago saying the government had detained him, according to Inside Higher Ed. His family members then notified the university, who at the time was unsure about Li's whereabouts and did not discover specific information about the incident until this week.
According to the statement, Li was detained by authorities in China's Henan Province as the result of what he calls a "personal accident." He was held in custody, though not arrested, for two weeks. He had originally expected to return to the states on June 12 after visiting relatives in Beijing.
Li told the university that on June 6 he borrowed a vehicle to drive to his late father's hometown, Tangyin, where he wished to clean his father's grave as a promise he had made to his mother. On his way there, he was stopped by police at a routine checkpoint only to discover that the vehicle he had borrowed from a friend was a car borrowed from another friend.
The release stated that authorities found a medical kit in the trunk that contained pharmaceuticals requiring a special license, which Li did not have. Authorities took Li to a facility where he was fingerprinted and not allowed to leave. While there, authorities took his watch, passport, personal papers and cell phone.
"I was not free," Li told the university, according to the statement. "I cannot just walk out." That release also stated that Li told the university that he was not mistreated during his detainment but his three phone conversations with his sister were restricted to an approved script that did not allow him to specifically tell his sister that he was detained.
According to the release:
He was not allowed to tell them he was detained because authorities told him that his family would interfere in the investigation. His name was not placed on an official detention or arrest list, which would have helped his family learn of his whereabouts. He believes that the fact he was in a rural area where the laws are followed only vaguely and communications are difficult contributed to the situation.
Authorities released him on June 20, after they discovered the owner of the vehicle had the necessary documentation to transport the pharmaceuticals and checked into Li's background. He swept his father's grave, returned to Beijing and then flew to Nebraska three days later.
Throughout the week after the university suspected Li was detained, tight-lipped Chinese officials had formed a thick fog around the circumstances of the professor's arrest, prompting university officials to seek assistance from the U.S. embassy in China and alarming students who had been on the completed trip and remained in China into seeking earlier flights home.
Li had been in China with 18 UNL students for a month-long study abroad trip he hosted annually. He has had zero issues from the Chinese government in the past. The program ended as planned on June 1, at which time Li and his students parted ways.
The Lincoln Journal-Star reported two Saturdays ago that the school has continued to do all it could to find out more about Li’s arrest, but the nuances of the Chinese justice system had made the situation difficult. Since Li is actually a citizen of China and not an American citizen, local authorities are not required to inform outside embassies of his arrest.
UNL News Director Kelly Bartling characterized the situation as the most significant disruption of UNL study abroad travel since a cloud of volcanic ash descended over Iceland grounded flights across Europe in 2010.