US President Donald Trump personally asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to intervene in the case of three US college basketball players arrested in China for alleged shoplifting, a report said on Tuesday. Trump brought up the case in talks with Xi during his two-day state visit to Beijing last week, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed sources.
The story said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also confirmed via email that Trump had raised the matter.
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, near Shanghai.
The UCLA and Georgia Tech squads had taken a side trip to the Hangzhou headquarters of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba a few days ahead of their weekend regular-season-opening game in Shanghai.
The players were arrested on suspicion of stealing from a Louis Vuitton store and later freed on bail, ESPN reported, adding that authorities had surveillance footage of the alleged crimes.
UCLA won the game 63-60 on Saturday despite being without the three players, who are still in Hangzhou awaiting a resolution of their situation, ESPN reported on Monday. The rest of the team flew home at the weekend.
An ESPN reporter travelling with the teams has quoted sources saying the three players could be in China for up to two weeks.
Trump learned about the details of the case from aides, including his chief of staff John Kelly, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed official as saying. The official added that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also might have spoken about the case with Trump.
Xi promised to look into the case and ensure that the players are treated fairly and expeditiously, the paper quoted a US official saying on condition of anonymity.
The official said Kelly remained 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 said.
The US Consulate in Shanghai, and Chinese police and officials, have declined to provide information confirming the players’ whereabouts and status.
Besides occurring the same week as 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 travelled to China on the trip to promote his Big Baller Brand shoe and apparel line.
Shoplifting can bring jail time in China depending on the value of the goods.