Cover Story

Detention season

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

Over this past spring, China has detained a record number of American residents. Most well known among them is Li Shaomin, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and contributes to The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Born in Beijing but now a U.S. citizen, Mr. Li recently took a teaching job at City University of Hong Kong in the business department. In late February after dinner with his wife and 9-year-old daughter, Mr. Li crossed the border into China to visit a friend.

He has not been seen since. Chinese authorities say they are detaining Mr. Li and have charged him with spying for Taiwan. Mr. Li's colleagues and family, however, say he was very open about his activities, writing extensively on market reform and the impact of privatization in China-the sorts of activities China has to endorse to win membership in the WTO.

That same month, Chinese authorities arrested Gao Zhan, a U.S. permanent resident and American University researcher. She was detained along with her husband Xue Donghua and 5-year-old son. They had returned to Beijing for the Chinese New Year to visit family and look for teaching jobs. Authorities held Ms. Gao's son, who is a U.S. citizen, 26 days without allowing him to see his parents or other family members. Authorities also failed to notify the U.S. embassy of his detention, as treaty obligations require them to do. In March both husband and son were released and reunited. The U.S. Congress quickly passed a bill awarding citizenship to Mr. Xue. Lawmakers plan this month to introduce a similar bill on behalf of Ms. Gao. But she now faces espionage charges and a potentially lengthy prison sentence.

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In March, Chinese authorities arrested businessman Liu Yaping, a permanent U.S. resident who returned to China to start new businesses. They accused Mr. Liu of tax evasion, but associates say the real problem is that he became embroiled in a power struggle between local communist officials. Mr. Liu, 48, suffers from a life-threatening aneurysm. Chinese lawyers who saw him briefly in May described him as appearing very ill.

Chinese authorities detained two others this spring: Wu Jianmin, a writer and U.S. citizen from New York City, detained April 8 on suspicion of spying for Taiwan; and Tan Guangguang, a permanent U.S. resident who has taught at top U.S. universities.

Fellow scholars are baffled by the sudden arrests because for 20 years the government has been encouraging overseas investment by Chinese émigrés and academic exchanges. Some of those arrested the government had at first encouraged to go abroad for advanced degrees.

"China is playing a risky game and hurting its own reputation and why? Are these cases worth it?" asked Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University. "The system is totally arbitrary."


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