COS president went to bat for family in China
After spending three weeks in Bejing, China, successfully working to have his daughter's boyfriend freed from a detention center, College of the Siskiyous president Randy Lawrence spoke about the experience to the Weed Rotary.
Citing frustration with the American embassy for not being proactive enough in protecting US citizens imprisoned in China, Lawrence, who described himself as a cooperative person, said he was finally forced to "put on the gloves" and demand action.
During the Rotary club's meeting Thursday at Dos Amigos in Weed, Lawrence said his daughter, Noël, 22, was hired by a Chinese university in May to teach Chinese children in an English immersion program.
As an Eastern Studies major who spoke Chinese, she was perfectly qualified for the job, he said. Noël moved to China with her boyfriend, Randy Rasmussen, also 22, on tourist visas obtained by the university.
They were eventually sent to Korea to get a proper, more long-term visa. However, Lawrence said, it's common for the schools to get a business visa rather than a working visa for their employees because they are much cheaper.
As Lawrence described it, right before the couple got to China, a drunken British man was beat up near Tiananmen Square after being accused of sexually assaulting a young Chinese woman. That led to a "100 day crackdown," during which Chinese officials raided nightclubs and, in some cases, went door to door to check the paperwork of westerners in the city.
At one point, Noël was taken from her apartment to the police station, where she was interrogated and kept for 24 hours before the school interceded and she was released, Lawrence said.
After that experience, Lawrence instructed his daughter to inquire about their passports to see if they were legitimate. She discovered they were not, and so Lawrence told them to get out of the country, he said.
But while they were going through the immigration process, both Noël and Rasmussen were taken to the police department. While Noël was let go, Rasmussen was taken to a detention center when it was discovered that his tourist visa hadn't been renewed and was past due, Lawrence explained.
During talks with his daughter via Skype, Lawrence said he saw the stress it was causing her and decided to go to China in order to support her through the process of getting Rasmussen released.
He left for Bejing immediately after the COS graduation May 20.
He had no passport or visa, but obtained the proper paperwork and within 24 hours was off to China.
Lawrence said when he and his daughter went to the embassy, it so happened that he knew the Chinese ambassador, Gary Locke, who was a former senator in Washington state, where Lawrence previously lived. But the ambassador was not responsive to inquiries, he said.
After talking to countless people and not making much progress, Lawrence was put in touch with a Chinese businessman who lives in Seattle as the American manager of a high-tech company. Ron Chow was able to get information that the embassy either couldn't or wouldn't divulge, Lawrence said.
Through Chow, Lawrence learned that Rasmussen was under investigation. According to Chinese law, they can only hold prisoners for 21 days before either charging them or letting them go.
Once Chow discovered the name and location of the detention center, Lawrence went there. He described the facility as "fearsome," and said because of the maximum security, he wasn't able to get anywhere near it.
"We were told it was like a hotel inside, where people are held until their cases are resolved," Lawrence said. "In actuality, the facility was worse than the very worst of American prisons."
Later, Lawrence said he learned Rasmussen was given tap water to drink and spoiled food to eat. He developed a fever so bad that some days all he could do was lie on the floor and shake without any medical attention. He was also tortured with sleep deprivation and boredom. Others were blasted with a fire hose and beaten, Lawrence said.
"I'm not a confrontational kind of person," Lawrence said. "I like to cooperate and come to a concensus, but when the time comes, I don't hesitate to put on the gloves."
Lawrence said he put on those metaphorical gloves when he discovered that Rasmussen had been forced to waive his right for release and agree to be held 30 days more.
Lawrence said he told the embassy, "I've never been so embarrassed to be an American in my life" and threatened to tell everyone he knows what the embassy is letting occur in China.
Three days later, Lawrence said Rasmussen was released. He was escorted to the airport, and when the plane took off carrying the three of them, "it was the most relieved I've ever been in my life."
Happy to have it resolved, Lawrence said he continues to worry that Rassmussen and his daughter could develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Lawrence said if he hadn't gone to China, his attempts to free Rasmussen would have been fruitless. The Chinese don't answer their phones if they are busy, and there is no voicemail, he said. Plus, with the time difference, using the phone wasn't an option.
"You have to be standing in front of a person to get attention," Lawrence said. "So that's what we did... we spent a lot of time standing in front of people."
Rasmussen's parents live in Bellingham, Wash., Lawrence said, so when he learned of someone in the US that could be contacted, he'd Skype them and let them know who to call, and vice versa. He called Skype "a lifesaver."
Lawrence stressed the potential for danger when traveling in China.
"There's an illusion that China is a safe country," Lawrence said. "If you are there on your own or just employed there, it is not."
Lawrence said he believes the only way it is completely safe for Americans to travel in China is if they are part of a big corporate entity or protected by the federal government.
He described Bejing as hot, humid and polluted. Though he didn't get to see the Great Wall of China during his impromptu travels, he is glad the story has a happy ending.
Lawrence is now encouraging Noël and Rasmussen to write a book about their experience. While it's being written, he encouraged her to write a "one pager" that can be disbursed to universities warning students of the dangers of traveling to China.