LINCOLN — A car borrowed from a friend of a friend led to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty member being detained for nearly two weeks after chaperoning a study abroad trip to China, UNL authorities said Tuesday.
Weixing Li returned to the United States on Saturday, 11 days after he was supposed to have met his vacationing wife and child in Alaska. He is not granting interviews about his experience and told his story to UNL communications officials Monday.
Li, a China native who is an assistant professor of practice in management in UNL's College of Business Administration, finished a study-abroad trip to China with 17 students and a graduate assistant on June 2.
Seven of the students then left China, while Li helped 10 others get settled into three- to four-week internships at businesses in Beijing and Shanghai.
Before his scheduled June 12 return to the U.S., he borrowed a car to visit and clean his father's grave in Tangyin, a town in the Henan Province. He had promised his mother that he would complete the ritual performed by sons in China. He set off on the 350-mile trip from Beijing to Tangyin on June 6.
Things went awry when he stopped at a routine police checkpoint about 15 miles outside of Tangyin. Police found a medical kit in the car trunk that contained pharmaceuticals for which Li did not have a required license.
After much discussion, the authorities took Li to a facility about 90 minutes away. They took his watch, passport, personal papers and cellphone, and he was fingerprinted.
Li said he was not mistreated, but it was clear he could not leave.
“I was not free,” he said in an interview with UNL communications. “I cannot just walk out.”
Li said he was always watched. He was allowed to call his sister three times and his wife twice, but he had to follow a script approved by authorities. He was not allowed to tell his family that he had been detained because authorities said his family might interfere in the investigation. Neither was his name placed on an official detention or arrest list, which would have helped his family learn of his whereabouts.
After authorities learned the car's owner had the documentation that allowed him to legally transport the medical supplies, the authorities focused on Li's background. Eventually, they simply released him.
“They told me my story checked out and I could go,” Li said.
Li said he never was arrested, but remained in police custody from about 6 p.m. June 6 until 9 a.m. June 20. After being released, he continued his journey to sweep his father's grave and returned to Beijing.
Li said he never feared that he would not be released. “I know I am not a bad guy,” he said, adding that he believed the incident was complicated by the fact that it took place in a rural area where the laws are followed only vaguely and communications are difficult.
However, he did worry about his family and his students, who probably were trying to contact him.
Li has led study-abroad trips to China for about five years. He has lived in the United States for 12 years and holds a “green card” as a permanent resident. He visits China twice a year.
He stressed that his students were never under any threat or danger.
“They may have been worried about me, but their safety was not in danger,” he said.
“What happened to me had nothing to do with UNL or the study-abroad program.”
David Wilson, UNL's senior international officer, said the university community is relieved by Li's safe return.
“We remain committed to study abroad, China and faculty and student safety,” he said.
“There are few better tools than study abroad to help students understand the world and its people in all of their variety.”
UNL officials stressed that Li's study-abroad duties had ended before the incident, but that the university is always reviewing ways to improve study abroad and ensure student safety.
The 10 students who remained in China for internships could have stayed as long as July 2, though all chose to accept UNL's offer of assistance to depart earlier than they had planned.
Students who have taken Li's class or traveled with him on past study-abroad trips said he was the last person they would expect to be detained by authorities. He is an experienced and confident traveler, they said, one who believes it's critical for business students to gain international experience.
Nate Myers of Grand Island, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in international business, accounting and finance, has taken several classes with Li and traveled with him to China in the summer of 2010.
Myers now works in the finance department of CNH Global, which manufactures combines in Grand Island. He described Li as a tireless advocate for students, working with Nebraska companies to establish ties in China and pushing companies in both Nebraska and China to create internships for students.
During the study-abroad trip, Li was adamant that his students immerse themselves in Chinese culture, insisting that they eat local cuisine, for example, instead of stopping at McDonald's or KFC. In a “parachuting” exercise, he dropped pairs of students at a location away from campus and required them to fend for themselves and find their way back to campus without resorting to a taxi.
Students don't always like his methods at first, but later they are thankful that he pushed them, Myers said.
“He is very well-versed in traveling,” said Scott Nelson, a pre-law and marketing student who took Li's strategic marketing class. Nelson said he was stunned to read that Li had been detained in China. “There's nothing about him or anything I know about him that would lead me to think he would get in trouble with authorities.”
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