Li Junhua, the Chinese diplomat who was used as a bargaining chip in trade talks, was finally returned home to China on Thursday, nearly four years after he was initially detained in China.
Li was arrested in 2014 during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was traveling to Asia on an unannounced visit with President Barack Obama. It was at the time a rare instance of a direct conversation between Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Kerry had been searching for Chinese prisoners in Hong Kong at the time, and was granted extraordinary access to the visiting diplomats. He ended up in the hands of the Chinese’s Foreign Ministry, where he was interrogated for days. The exchange caught the attention of U.S. media, and was seen as a sign of Obama’s willingness to engage with China. It is a relationship that is constantly in flux in the face of trade and geopolitical tensions between the two countries.
Chinese authorities initially charged Li with smuggling, but the charges were later dropped. He was allowed to stay in detention in mainland China for nearly three years, and in July of this year, he was transferred to a Canadian prison to serve the rest of his 18-month sentence for drug crimes. He was released on bail in September, but with an arrangement that allows him to leave the prison only at the Chinese and Canadian government’s discretion.
A huge amount of political lobbying has been focused on securing his release. The case has become a political hot potato, with North Carolina senator Richard Burr and Pennsylvania congresswoman Liz Cheney fighting the government’s decision to detain him. Corker has spoken with Xi on multiple occasions, and Jordan, the Jordanian king, was able to broker a trip home for Li after brief discussions with the North Korean and Chinese leaders.
Li finally arrived back in China on Thursday afternoon, accompanying Governor Li Qiang of Xinjiang Province, who was also reportedly in custody. At a press conference in Beijing, Governor Li said Li was the right man for the job of CEO of the Silk Road Fund. He assured that China would further increase its relationship with the Western world, including the United States. “China will stand by its sovereign rights and interests at the same time,” he said.