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Motivated by money

International | UPDATE: Chinese-American human-rights heroine gets a prison sentence after her guilty plea in an illegal-export scheme

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

Gao Zhan, the celebrated Christian human-rights activist and Ph.D. sociologist who spent nearly six months in Chinese custody on espionage charges in 2001, is about to experience imprisonment American style. A China-born U.S. resident living in Virginia, she was facing a sentence of up to three years when she went before a federal judge in Arlington on March 5. She pleaded guilty last November to selling illegally more than $539,000 worth of militarily sensitive semiconductors and other parts to an institute in Nanching, China, with ties to that country's military. She also was charged with filing a false tax return.

At the request of prosecutors, who said Ms. Gao had cooperated fully with them and had provided "classified" valuable information to U.S. authorities, a federal judge in Arlington sentenced her on March 5 to seven months in prison and eight months in a halfway house on nights and weekends. The classified information possibly included identification of others involved in exports of sensitive goods to China.

Praising her cooperation, the judge stayed the sentence for 90 days to allow her to continue nursing her 6-month-old son. She has two other young sons. She and her husband earlier forfeited $505,000 of the proceeds from the illegal sale, and must pay additional taxes of $88,000. (In all, officials said she sold more than $1.5 million in sensitive goods to Chinese firms between 1998 and 2001, but the plea bargain limited focus to only part of it. They said they don't know where the goods ended up.)

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Ms. Gao apologized in court for her actions, saying she didn't mean to hurt the United States but realizes now she could have. She said she had done it for money to help finance a women's research center in China. It was "a terrible mistake," she acknowledged. The prosecutors noted she had not been charged with espionage.

Following her guilty plea last November, she told The Washington Post she never intended to betray America and "especially the Bush administration, who rescued me and saved my family." She said she pleaded guilty to accept responsibility for her actions "as a God-fearing Christian" and to spare her family the strain and cost of a long trial.

In a 2001 cover story for WORLD, Ms. Gao told how she had become an evangelical Christian while pursuing a Ph.D. at Syracuse University on a student visa ("Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001). Earlier, she had been active in the student-reform movement in China that led to the bloody encounter in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. She went on to become a researcher and lecturer at American University in Washington, to win permanent U.S. residence, and to press for greater freedom in China.

She also described how on the last day of a visit to China for scholarly research purposes in February 2001, security officials seized her at the Beijing airport and charged her with spying for Taiwan. She denied the allegations, but was hit with a 10-year prison sentence. President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other officials pressured the Chinese to release her, and amid much fanfare she returned home months later a heroine.

Curiously, unknown to her, Ms. Gao also was under investigation by American authorities at the time. A high-tech distributor had tipped them off nearly a year earlier about suspect orders from a Virginia research firm led by a woman identified as Gail Heights. She said she wanted 80 486 DX2-50 microprocessors for domestic research, but the company suspected they were for illegal export. The trail led to the diminutive Ms. Gao, posing as Miss Heights.

The processors were obsolete, but what made these different from millions of other outmoded 486 DX2 chips was their special design to withstand extreme subfreezing temperatures. Although they no longer were being manufactured, some were still powering older technology used in navigation systems in civilian and military aviation.

Obsolescence-management firms either gobble up the last production runs of discontinued chips to use as replacement parts later, or gain rights to manufacture them. One of those firms, Massachusetts-based global giant Rochester Electronics, had the chips Ms. Gao wanted. Because they had potential military use, including use in missile guidance systems, the government had placed them on its list of tech items either needing a license for export abroad or banned outright.

Yet some defense analysts doubt the exports were of much value. They ask: Why would the Chinese want obsolete chips when they already have access to the latest chip technology?

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