WASHINGTON/BEIJING – Chinese authorities raided the office of US corporate due diligence firm Mintz Group in Beijing and detained five local staff, the company said, stoking worry among foreign companies in China just as it hosts an international economic forum.
News of the raid and detentions comes as Sino-US relations have spiralled downwards following months of diplomatic tensions, including over the US military downing in February of a suspected Chinese spy balloon and a planned US transit next week by the president of Taiwan, an island which Beijing regards as a renegade province to be reunified, by force if necessary.
“We can confirm that Chinese authorities have detained the five staff in Mintz Group’s Beijing office, all of them Chinese nationals, and have closed our operations there,” the company said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters late on Thursday.
The company said it was ready to work with the Chinese authorities to “resolve any misunderstanding that may have led to these events”, and that its top concern was the safety and well-being of colleagues in China.
“Mintz Group has not received any official legal notice regarding a case against the company and has requested that the authorities release its employees,” the company said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Friday she was not aware of this case. The Beijing public security bureau did not respond to a request for comment.
A source at the New York-headquartered firm earlier told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the company’s local legal counsel said the raid occurred on the afternoon of March 20, and that the employees were being held incommunicado somewhere outside Beijing.
According to Mintz Group’s website, the Beijing office is its only one in mainland China. The website says the company specialises in background checking, fact gathering and internal investigations and has 18 offices around the world and hundreds of employees.
Mr Randal Phillips, a partner at the firm who heads its Asia operations but is based outside China, is listed on its website as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) former chief representative in China.
Mr Phillips worked in Beijing for years after leaving the CIA. There was no indication that the incident was related to him.
Beijing is gearing up to hold the three-day China Development Forum from Saturday, where executives from multinationals and representatives from international organisations will be among the more than 100 overseas delegates present.
One US business community person told Reuters that the Mintz Group incident sent a “remarkable signal” that Beijing wants foreign money and technology, but that it will not accept credible US firms conducting due diligence on Chinese partners or the business environment.
“Red alerts should be going off in all boardrooms right now about risks in China,” the source, who did not wish to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said.
Western due diligence companies have got into trouble with Chinese authorities before.
British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife, Ms Yu Yingzeng, who ran risk consultancy ChinaWhys, were detained in 2013 following work they did for British pharmaceuticals giant GSK.