US President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he personally asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to intervene on behalf of three US college basketball players arrested in China for alleged shoplifting and expressed hope they would soon be sent home.
Trump told reporters that he brought up the case in talks with Xi during his two-day state visit to Beijing last week.
“He was terrific, and they’re working on it right now. And hopefully everything is going to work out,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving the Philippines, at the conclusion of his five-nation tour of Asia.
“But that was not a good subject. That was not something that should have happened,” Trump added, calling it a “very, very rough situation with what happened to them,” providing no details.
UCLA players LiAngelo Ball — the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie star Lonzo Ball — and teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were arrested last Tuesday in Hangzhou ahead of their regular-season-opening game against Georgia Tech in nearby Shanghai this past weekend.
ESPN reported that they were nabbed on suspicion of stealing from a Louis Vuitton store and later freed on bail but ordered to remain in Hangzhou.
The US sports network, which had a reporter travelling with the teams, quoted sources saying authorities had surveillance footage of the alleged crimes.
“What they did was unfortunate. You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. They (Chinese authorities) do not play games,” Trump said.
Shoplifting can bring jail time in China depending on the value of the goods.
But the likelihood of China throwing the book at the trio was probably low with the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies keen to make nice for the state visit.
Asked whether the players would soon be coming home, Trump said: “I hope so. I hope so.”
The UCLA and Georgia Tech squads were in Hangzhou for a side trip to the headquarters of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
UCLA won Saturday’s game in Shanghai 63-60 without the three players. The rest of the team flew home afterwards.
The Washington Post, quoting unnamed US officials, had reported earlier on Tuesday that Trump learned about the details of the case from aides, including his chief of staff John Kelly.
Xi promised to look into the case and ensure the players are treated fairly and expeditiously, the paper quoted an official saying.
Kelly remains in touch with the player’s families and with Chinese authorities, adding that charges against the players had been reduced and the case was proceeding toward a resolution, the Post reported.
The US and Chinese governments have declined to release any information on the players’ whereabouts and status, probably due to the diplomatic sensitivities.
Besides coinciding with Trump’s visit, the case has raised waves in the United States due to the involvement of LiAngelo Ball, one of three high-profile basketball-playing sons of LaVar Ball.
The elder Ball has become a media personality by aggressively promoting his sons as future NBA superstars and had travelled to China on the trip to promote his Big Baller Brand shoe and apparel line.