For the third time this month, Chinese authorities Tuesday convicted a scholar with ties to the U.S. of spying even as Washington was expressing its displeasure at the first two verdicts.
A Beijing court found Qin Guangguang, a pharmaceuticals expert and former visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, guilty of spying for Taiwan and sentenced him to 10 years in jail. The sentence was handed down only hours after the same court meted out an identical sentence to Gao Zhan, a sociologist at American University in Washington.
The crackdown appears largely to be a product of China's domestic politics, and China's ambassador to the U.S., Yang Jiechi, indicated in remarks at the National Press Club that Beijing didn't want the issue to undermine its delicate ties with Washington as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prepares to visit China over the weekend. U.S. officials said the issue would come up.
The two countries, Yang said, should "concentrate on the big picture, and some things should not be played up way out of proportion."
Both Qin and Gao are Chinese citizens who have permanent resident status in the U.S. Two other academics, Wu Jianmin, an author and U.S. citizen, and Hong Kong scholar Xu Zerong still are being detained on suspicion of espionage and await trial.
Alleged intelligence gathering by Qin and Gao posed "a serious threat to China's national security," the official New China News Agency reported the court as saying.
The court also sentenced a third person, Qu Wei, whom Hong Kong media identified as a Chinese official in charge of propaganda concerning Taiwan, to 13 years in prison for providing "national secrets and intelligence" to Gao and Li Shaomin. Li, a Hong Kong-based academic and U.S. citizen, was convicted of spying for Taiwan on July 14. China's Foreign Ministry announced today that Li had been expelled.
"We are quite dismayed," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Powell, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity before the verdict in Qin's trial was known. "We are concerned about the lack of transparency [in Gao's trial] and the speed at which this was done."
U.S. officials intend to appeal the case of Gao when Powell holds talks with Chinese officials in Hanoi today and during his stop in Beijing on Saturday, the official said.
The United States had asked that diplomats be allowed to attend the trial, but they were barred from the proceedings on the grounds that Gao is not a U.S. citizen.
Gao, who suffers heart ailments, has applied to authorities for medical parole. Releasing Gao and then expelling her would be a likely gesture of conciliation toward Powell, similar to the expulsion of celebrity dissidents such as former student protest leader Wang Dan, who was granted medical parole and then expelled ahead of President Clinton's 1998 visit to China. However, according to Chinese law, prisoners are only eligible for medical parole after serving half of their sentences.
Gao, her husband, Xue Donghua, and their 5-year-old son, Andrew, were detained on a family trip to China in February. The boy and his father were released a month later.
The arrests of scholars such as Gao and Li have alarmed academic circles, particularly scholars of Chinese descent.
Powell's visit is intended to bolster ties with China that have been strained by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the collision of a U.S. intelligence plane and a Chinese jet this spring. Powell is to lay the groundwork for an October visit to China by President Bush.
"There are other people who have been detained, and there are other people who could be detained tomorrow," Powell said earlier. "Just removing one or two cases that might be high-profile cases for the moment isn't enough.
"We're looking for a more basic change in their human rights attitudes and position," he said. "We think it would be better for their society, it would be better for their standing in the international community."
But in Hanoi, where Powell and other officials were gathering for a meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi insisted, "We already have enough evidence to show that Gao Zhan was a spy for a Taiwanese spying outfit. She has admitted this, and her case is being handled entirely according to Chinese law."
The Global Times, a tabloid published by the official People's Daily, claimed in a recent article that mainland state security agents were cracking an increasing number of Taiwanese spy rings. The piece listed as examples Li and several "less fortunate" Taiwanese military intelligence agents, including two women who were executed last year for spying.
Some reasons for the anti-espionage campaign are clear. Subversion is included as a target of China's ongoing "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign. Beijing wants forces of instability quashed before a leadership change starting with next year's 16th Communist Party Congress.
And state security agents are trying to restore an institutional reputation tarnished by their failure to foresee or prevent protests by thousands of members of the Falun Gong spiritual group in recent years, as well as the defection to the U.S. in December of high-ranking military intelligence official Xu Junping.
But while the political expediency of the crackdown is evident, the definition of the state secrets it is supposed to guard remains vague. Chinese authorities sometimes define intelligence to include publicly circulated newspapers and neibu, or internal circulation publications--technically classified documents that are often openly sold in Chinese bookstores.
"I think the authorities are alarmed less at the actual content of the information than at the general porousness through which it leaks," said Smith College China expert Steven Goldstein.
Increasing the risk is the fact that more and more scholarly research on China is being made possible by Taiwanese funds and institutions.
"It's hard to find a major academic center where there isn't a program or faculty member funded by some Taiwanese foundation," said another U.S. scholar who frequently travels to China for research. "Given the unclear rules of the game, you're not sure where your contacts or your information are going to cross the line."
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Hanoi contributed to this report.
Back in Vietnam: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell seeks to mend ties with a nation he fought. A4