In a signal of its desire for better relations with Washington, Beijing today released two U.S.-based Chinese scholars convicted just two days ago on charges of spying for Taiwan and sentenced to 10 years in prison, U.S. and Chinese officials announced here today.
Sociologist Gao Zhan, who was detained Feb. 11, was expelled and put on a plane to the United States, a senior U.S. official said. She was reportedly put aboard a Northwest flight to Detroit.
Qin Guangguang, a former visiting professor at the University of Michigan and since 1994 the Beijing representative of a pharmaceutical company, was detained Dec. 12. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said both Gao and Qin were released on medical parole but did not say if Qin had left the country.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that he was "pleased" with news of China's decision.
The abrupt releases came a day after Powell met with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan in the Vietnamese capital. After their talks, Powell predicted that the cases of American scholars recently convicted of espionage were "on the way to resolution" within "24 hours or so."
"I'm pleased that several of those cases are now on the way to resolution on humanitarian grounds, and you will see that in a quite obvious way within the next 24 hours or so,' he told reporters after talks with Tang.
Just a day earlier, China deported Li Shaomin, a Chinese-born American business professor who also was convicted of spying earlier this month. Unlike Gao and Qin, Li is a U.S. citizen. He flew to the United States on Wednesday.
The releases marked a significant breakthrough that will ease tensions when Powell travels to Beijing on Saturday for his first visit to China. The secretary, who is on a weeklong tour of Asia and Australia, is due to hold talks there in preparation for President Bush's visit in October. After meeting with Tang, the secretary declared relations with China were "on the upswing."
Both Gao and Qin had appealed for early release from their stiff jail sentences on humanitarian medical grounds. After Powell's talks with his Chinese counterpart, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told American reporters here that the Chinese court would give consideration to the two cases and make a "relevant arrangement" according to the law, and that the cases would "be resolved in due course."
U.S. officials later noted that Tang initiated discussion of the scholars' cases and offered assurances that they would be dealt with in recognition of events planned between the two countries.
Sun insisted that China had "hard evidence" that the two had been active members of a Taiwan espionage ring.
"She went to mainland China many times to engage in espionage and she received financial support from Taiwan," he said of Gao.
But in a clear acknowledgment of the diplomatic stakes involved in the cases, Sun said China "welcomes and attaches great importance" to the upcoming Powell visit. The spokesman highlighted Powell's message to Tang in their talks that the United States does not look at China as an enemy.
Resolution of the cases removes a major cause of tension between the two major powers at a pivotal moment in relations with the new Bush administration. The optimistic predictions came just as China deported Li.
Unlike Gao and Qin, Li is a U.S. citizen. He flew to the United States on Wednesday via Japan, and arrived in San Francisco. Powell said he was "very pleased" to hear of Li's release.
In contrast to tough language on China used by U.S. officials traveling with Powell just two days ago, Powell was upbeat about Sino-American ties.
"I think the relationship is on the upswing now that these irritations are behind us, and I know they are anxious to move forward," he said after the 45-minute meeting with Tang on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations.
"It was an excellent meeting. We're off to a good start in this round."
Powell said Beijing is now eager to work with Washington. Beijing also believes that the United States has a role to play in the region. "They are not trying to squeeze us out," he said. Development of relations could now focus on issues of economic development and regional security, he added.
A senior U.S. official later told reporters traveling with Powell that both sides are taking serious steps toward resolving issues in their relationship.
"Both sides are looking forward to a productive series of meetings" during the Powell visit and the Bush trip to Shanghai, he said.
Resolution of the cases would not mean an end to U.S. pressure on human rights issues, the official said.
During the Powell-Tang talks, the secretary made clear that the United States and China "need to take up the issue of human rights and the detentions. We do intend to take them up," he said.
The talks here did not deal, however, with U.S. plans to develop and deploy a new defense strategy centered on a shield against long-range missiles, another controversial issue in U.S.-China relations. But Powell told reporters that he looks forward to talks on security in Beijing.
Special correspondent Anthony Kuhn contributed to this report.