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Detention of scholars sends shivers through global academic community

April 20, 2001

When the news broke in March that US-based Chinese scholar Gao Zhan had been detained on spying charges, it quickly led to the release of information about other similar cases of academics who had been arrested by State Security authorities.

The arrest of dissidents is now unfortunately considered so unremarkable as to barely merit mention in the media. But these individuals were not dissidents: all residents either in the United States or in Hong Kong, they had been regular visitors to the mainland in recent years. Speculation about the meaning of these detentions, some of which actually occurred last year, has failed to give any convincing explanation for what is evidently a change in the policies of the State Security authorities regarding Chinese-born scholars living overseas.

The fears and uncertainty aroused by this policy shift led to unprecedented expressions of concern from scholars of China worldwide. On April 17, an open letter on the detentions to Jiang Zemin signed by close to 400 academics around the globe was released at a press conference in New York. (This petition remained open for signatures, with the current total around 700.) And then on May 7, 104 Hong Kong-based scholars issued another open letter to the Chinese president, focusing particularly on the case of Li Shaomin. The text of both of these letters, edited for space, and case files giving the latest information about five individuals still in detention are presented here.




His Excellency Jiang Zemin
President, People’s Republic of China

Your Excellency,

We, the undersigned members of the international academic community working in the field of China studies, would like to express to you our deep concern over the recent detention of three academic researchers by Chinese authorities.

Professor Li Shaomin, who teaches business at the City University of Hong Kong, was detained on February 25 during a visit to Shenzhen. At this writing, the authorities have not stated why he was detained, or where he is being held. Prof. Li, a US citizen for the last six years, is a much-published sociologist whose work focuses on the issues involved in China’s privatizing economy and on the impact and use of advertising in China.... He had frequently traveled between Hong Kong and mainland China in the past.

We are also deeply concerned about the arrest of Dr. Gao Zhan, a research scholar based at American University in Washington, D.C., who was detained in China on February 11 and was arrested for “spying” for unspecified “overseas intelligence agencies.” Although Chinese authorities have stated that she has confessed to these charges, to date the Chinese Government has not provided any confirming evidence.... Moreover, in contravention of China’s clear obligations under the Sino-US consular agreement providing for prompt access to detained nationals by their consular representatives, the couple’s five-year-old son, a US citizen, was detained and separated from his parents for 26 days without any notification to US authorities. Dr. Gao’s academic work focuses on Chinese students, especially women, who return to China after a period abroad. She has been held in total isolation and denied access to counsel.

Finally, we are seriously concerned for the safety and well-being of Dr. Xu Zerong, who was detained by PRC State Security officers in Guangzhou last October. Dr. Xu, who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University, is an associate research professor at the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and an affiliated professor at Zhongshan University. Before assuming these posts, he was a legal resident of Hong Kong, where he was active in publishing the Chinese Social Sciences Quarterly. It is not known what charges, if any, Dr. Xu may currently be facing. His family has reportedly neither been allowed to meet with him nor been informed as to where he is being held, and he has not been permitted to speak with a lawyer.

The extended solitary confinement of all three of these scholars, on the pretext that they are detained under what was intended to be the milder sanction of “supervised residence,” is a gross violation of China’s Criminal Procedure Law. This is recognized by Article 98 of the Ministry of Public Security’s 1998 Rules on Procedures for the Handling of Criminal Cases by Public Security Organs.

Moreover, when China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October 1998, it made a commitment to strive to provide all individuals the right to be free from “arbitrary arrest or detention,” and to guarantee all the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” In addition, Article 47 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China protects the freedom to engage in scientific research and artistic endeavor. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which China has ratified, stipulates (in Article 15): “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.” The ongoing detention of Li Shaomin, Gao Zhan and Xu Zerong violates the above-listed fundamental rights. Their detention will likely deter other academics, especially but by no means only those of Chinese nationality, from freely pursuing their research in and about China for fear of suffering the same treatment.

Scholarly relations have been in the forefront of the process of improving relations between China and the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of scholars have participated in both directions and have contributed significantly to China’s modernization and the enhancement of understanding between China and other nations. It is therefore with dismay that we view the deterioration of the climate for academic exchange and research, as demonstrated by the detention of scholars who have returned to China merely to conduct research and engage in other normal scholarly activities.

A vibrant civil society and the free exchange of views and ideas are essential for any healthy society and especially for a country preparing to embrace the global economy. We therefore respectfully urge your government to indicate its commitment to protecting and promoting academic freedom in China, and to upholding the vital role of scholarly exchange in building international understanding and trust, either by immediately releasing the three detained social scientists, or by promptly affording them the genuine opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a court of law following international standards of due process. (These include, of course, unimpeded access by the accused to legal counsel of their choice, and also—where relevant—regular access to and by their consular representatives.)

Thank you for your consideration of these urgent and important matters. We look forward to receiving your reply.

Signed by 400 scholars
April 17, 2001








President Jiang Zemin
Zhongnanhai, Beijing

Dear President Jiang,

As scholars based in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, we would like to express our deep concern over the prolonged detention of several scholars by the authorities in the last six months, including Dr. Li Shaomin, who teaches at the Faculty of Business of the City University of Hong Kong. We take note of a press release issued by Dr. Li’s wife, Liu Yingli, on April 17, 2001: “My husband Dr. Li Shaomin is an outstanding scholar. He devoted most of his time and energy to his academic work and teaching. I truly believe that he has done nothing wrong. All he did was to pursue his research in the academic areas related to China-study. I could not comprehend why Shaomin’s devotion to academic research brought him and our family such a nightmare.”

China’s open door policy since the late 1970s has paved the way for meaningful academic exchanges and quality scholarship in the field of China studies. Such exchanges and scholarship have contributed a great deal to the understanding between China and the international community at different levels. It has further contributed to China’s modernization efforts in the last 20 years by stimulating public policy discussion, providing constructive criticism and proposing alternatives for China’s multi-faceted economic, social and legal reforms. Scholars of Chinese origin have acted as a bridge in such two-way exchanges by narrowing the cultural and language gap. With China’s imminent entry to the World Trade Organization and the apparent commitment on the part of China’s leadership to further economic, social and legal reforms, such exchanges and cross-cultural communication are indispensable for the future success of China in the world of nations. As scholars based in Hong Kong, who have professional and personal ties with the Mainland, we hope to continue to engage in such exchanges and academic pursuits. It is against this background that we are deeply troubled by the recent spate of events involving detention of academic scholars in the Mainland by the Mainland authorities.

We are also concerned by the secrecy and non-transparent procedures adopted by the Mainland authorities in the detention of these scholars. The failure to, in a timely fashion, inform the family members and specify charges justifying such detention has cast a shadow over the Mainland’s Criminal Procedure Law, which was widely regarded both at home and abroad as a milestone in China’s quest for the rule of law. The secrecy and non-transparent procedures associated with these incidents of detention have also made the international community seriously doubt the sincerity and commitment on the part of the Chinese government to adhere to both the letter and spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed in 1998.

The recent events have instilled fear and bewilderment among the international community of scholars of China studies. They have had particularly strong impact on scholars based in Hong Kong who travel to the Mainland regularly for professional and personal reasons. Many scholars have recently canceled their trips to the Mainland and others have put on hold their planned academic projects to be conducted in China. The negative impact on the international image of China and the scholarship on China studies may be felt for many years to come.

Given the vital role scholarly exchanges and scholarship have played in China’s modernization efforts and their continued importance for China’s success in the world of nations, we respectfully urge the Mainland authorities to indicate China’s commitment to pursuing the course of the rule of law, including guaranteeing academic freedom and free exchange of information in China, either by releasing these scholars immediately or by identifying with sufficient particulars the illegal acts alleged to have been done by them and according them meaningful rights in accordance with the letter and spirit of China’s Criminal Procedure Law and the ICCPR. In addition, in order to alleviate concerns among scholars, we strongly urge the Mainland authorities to issue clear and specific guidelines explaining what types of information gathering exercise or activities in connection with academic field research in China will infringe the laws on national security.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.

Sincerely yours,

104 Hong Kong Scholars.
May 7, 2001

















On February 11, 2001, Gao Zhan, 40, a sociologist and a US permanent resident, was detained by State Security agents at the Beijing airport together with her husband, Xue Donghua, and Andrew, their five-year-old son. The family was about to board a plane after a three-week visit to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with family. This was entirely unexpected — Gao and Xue had visited China regularly in recent years.

According to Xue, about 15 officers surrounded the couple and he was separated from his wife and child. The security agents searched every piece of their luggage, but found nothing they wanted, and seized their passports. Xue was then blindfolded and driven to an unknown location.

For 26 days, Andrew, an American citizen, was not allowed any contact with his parents or grandparents. Xue repeatedly requested that his son stay with him, Gao, or a family member in Beijing, to no avail. The officers told him the boy was in a kindergarten.

On March 8, Xue and Andrew were released and immediately put on a plane to the United States. Gao is still being held in an undisclosed location, and has had no access to family or to a lawyer.

On March 22 a Chinese government spokesman told reporters that Dr. Gao “has openly confessed her crimes,” and stated, “Evidence has shown that Gao Zhan accepted missions from overseas intelligence agencies and took funds for spying activities in China.” On April 2, Gao was formally charged, but no evidence to support these claims was provided.

During his time in custody, Xue was interrogated about details of his wife’s publications, research activities and her two Taiwan trips in 1995 and 1999. Xue said he did not believe his wife had committed any crime and said her work in China was purely academic.

Dr. Gao earned a master’s degree in Sociology and a doctorate in Social Science from Syracuse University in 1997. She also holds a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Nanjing University and a degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Nanjing Normal University. Her research has focused on women’s issues and economic reform in China, including comparisons of the political roles of women in Mainland China and Taiwan. She has also written several articles about students who return to China after completing their degrees at foreign universities. She was the treasurer of the Association of Chinese Political Studies, a group of mainly Chinese-born scholars working abroad.
















Business lecturer Li Shaomin, a US citizen who works at City University of Hong Kong, was detained in Shenzhen on February 25. That night, after dinner with his wife, Liu Yingli and nine-year-old-daughter, Diana, Li left for an overnight trip to Shenzhen, something he did quite regularly. A few days later, the US Embassy in Beijing told his family that Li had been detained at an unknown location for unspecified reasons. The Chinese government charged Li with spying for Taiwan on May 15.

Li, 44, is a scholar known both inside and outside China. In 1982, he graduated from Beijing University in Economics and left for the United States, where he received his doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. After that he undertook post-doctoral studies at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research from 1989 to 1990.

In 1993, Li was a United Nations advisor to China on the business applications of demographic data. In 1995, Li and his wife became US citizens and the following year, accepted teaching positions at City University. Before that, Li had been a director of AT&T EastGate Services.

Liu Yingli said her husband had traveled to the mainland frequently since moving to Hong Kong. He was regularly invited to give lectures and run training programs on China, economics, strategic management and international business at leading institutions, including Harvard University, Columbia University, Princeton University, China’s State Statistical Bureau, the American Enterprise Institute and the National University of Taiwan. Li is a member of the editorial boards of journals Modern China Studies (Princeton) and Market and Demographic Analysis (Beijing). He has also done consulting work for some major global companies, including Fidelity Investments, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and AIG.

Last May, the propaganda and technology departments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) headquarters jointly invited Li to Beijing to lecture on Net economy issues, for the benefit of cadres working in related fields. China Central Television covered the lecture. Friends described Li as a supporter of the pro-democracy movement — he signed several open letters on the topic in the late 1980s — but he did not belong to any dissident groups, and in recent years, his focus has been on economic issues in China.

However, security officials may regard his family background with suspicion. His father, Li Honglin, a prominent liberal scholar, called in the 1980s for a loosening of one-party rule. Li senior was close to the late CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang and ousted leader Zhao Ziyang, and was detained for 10 months in the wake of the 1989 demonstrations.

But Liu Yingli said she did not believe Li’s detention had anything to do with his father. Some media reports speculated that the arrest was linked to Li’s reported role as advisor to the United States during negotiations over China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization.
















A researcher specializing in CCP history, military history and China’s relations with Southeast Asia, Xu Zerong, 45, was first detained on June 24, 2000, and then formally arrested on July 25, 2000, in Guangzhou where he works as a research professor at Zhongshan University.

When concern about his case was raised in Britain, where he had studied, Chinese officials said that Xu had already “confessed” to crimes involving “the illegal publication of books and periodicals and the sale of book authorization numbers since 1993.” According to unconfirmed reports, he has already been sent to a labor camp.

Xu’s late parents were high-ranking officials. His father was a People’s Liberation Army general who once headed the Political Department of the Guangzhou Military Area Command, while his mother served as Communist Party chief at Zhongshan University.

In the 1980s, Xu moved to Hong Kong where he conducted research on history and gained permanent residency. At that time, he set up a publishing house and was active in publishing the Chinese Social Sciences Quarterly, which became a respected scholarly journal. He was reportedly an assistant researcher for the official Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong and was said to be close to then Xinhua director Xu Jiatun, now in exile in the United States.

Xu completed a master’s degree in International Relations at Oxford University in 1991 and went on to do a doctorate, completed in 1999, that focused on the entry of China into the Korean War in the 1950s. He then became an associate research professor at Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and an affiliated professor at Zhongshan University. Xu is divorced and his teenage son lives in Hong Kong.

Xu was said to have been questioned by security officials about a piece published in 1997 about the reasons behind revolutionary success of late communist leader Mao Zedong. Writings on China’s role in the Korean War in the 1950s and on Chinese aid to the Malaysian Communist Party, including helping Malaysian communist guerillas set up a radio station in Hunan in the 1970s and 1980s, were reportedly considered sensitive by the authorities.
















In December 2000, Chinese security agents detained Qin Guangguang, a Chinese scholar and US green card holder. Qin, who worked for a medical group in Beijing, had written about ethnic minorities and religions in the PRC.

According to media reports, Qin was detained on suspicion of leaking state secrets to a friend in a foreign intelligence agency. Chinese security agents confiscated both his and his wife’s US green cards.

Qin and his wife Feng Li both belong to ethnic minority groups from the southwest, and are from families of high-ranking officials. Qin is a Zhuang (an ethnic group living in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yunnan and Guangdong) and his father was a senior military official. Feng Li is from the Yi ethnic group (living in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou) and her father, Feng Yuanwei, was a former deputy Party secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Committee and a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Feng senior was identified with the faction of ousted Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who lost his post during the 1989 demonstrations.

From 1986 to 1989, Qin was the chief editor of the now-defunct journal, China Economic Information News, and a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago and Stanford University from 1989 to 1992. In 1988, he published a book on the religions of ethnic minorities in the PRC. He and his wife also published a cultural dictionary.

According to some sources, Qin, his wife and daughter had stayed in New York for a few years and run a restaurant and a community newspaper. In 1994, he returned to China, and worked as vice chairman of the American United Medical Group in Beijing at the time of his detention.
















Scholar and journalist Wu Jianmin, a US citizen, was detained on April 8 in Shenzhen, and has since been held in nearby Guangzhou on spying charges. No details are available about his arrest. The Chinese authorities informed the US embassy of Wu’s detention on April 14, and he has been visited several times by US consular officers.

Beijing accused Wu, 46, of being involved in collecting information which endangered state security and said he was under investigation. But the Chinese government declined to say for whom Wu was suspected of spying or to give further details.

Before 1986, Wu taught at the Central Party School. After that he worked as a journalist for the Shenzhen Youth Daily until 1988 when he migrated to the United States and became a US citizen. He had been living in New York with his son, while other family members remained in China. Wu wrote frequently for Hong Kong news magazines on Chinese politics.

In 1989, Wu’s book Zhongnanhai has Played all its Trump Cards, was published by a Taiwan publishing house under a pseudonym. Zhongnanhai is the residential and administrative compound in Beijing where top leaders live and work. This was among the first books to reveal details on the decision-making that led to the 1989 crackdown. The Hong Kong press has speculated that this links Wu in some way to the publication of the Tiananmen Papers this year.

Profiles compiled by Virginia Lai





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