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a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
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May 18, 2001

Ray Suarez talks with former ambassador to China James Lilley; American University President Benjamin Ladner; and law professor Donald Clarke of the University of Washington, about China's crackdown on visiting Chinese Americans.



RAY SUAREZ: China is becoming a dangerous place for some ethnic Chinese who are now U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Since December, China has detained business Professor Li Shaomin and at least three other Chinese-born professionals. Yesterday the State Department announced Beijing's latest action against Li.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We were notified by the Chinese Ministry of State Security on May 15th the Chinese government had formally arrested and charged Mr. Li Shaomin, an American citizen. The charges are spying against China on behalf of Taiwan.

RAY SUAREZ: In Hong Kong, where Professor Li teaches, his wife denounced the charges.

LIU YINGLI: They are totally nonsense, and he is a scholar; he does his research. He has been in Taiwan before, like other scholars. The purpose of them to detain scholars, such as my husband, is to intimidate other scholars to do research about China to speak out what is happening in China.

RAY SUAREZ: Also being held in China is Gao Zhan, a U.S. permanent resident who studies Chinese women and politics at American University in Washington. On February 11th, Chinese officials detained Gao, along with her husband and five year old son, who is an American citizen. The three were held separately for 26 days. Gao's husband returned home with his son in Mach.. He said they were taken at Beijing Airport.

XU DONGHUE, Husband of Gao Zhan ( Translated ): From the airport we were separated to three places. Then they were just saying, we have to talk to you. They wanted to know more about my wife, about her publications, about Taiwan-China relations and her two-week visits to Taiwan in 1995 and '99.

RAY SUAREZ: Eventually, Beijing accused Gao of endangering state security.

SUN YUXI, Foreign Ministry, China: (Translated) Gao Zhan is a Chinese citizen. In the trial she admitted all the criminal activities she committed. Chinese government agencies tried her case in accordance with Chinese laws. And during the entire procure, we completely abided by the law and we were very humanitarian.

RAY SUAREZ: The other two recent detainees are Wu Jianmin, a U.S. citizen and freelance writer who's been held since April, and Qin Guangguang, a U.S. green card holder and businessman charged with leaking state secrets; he's been held since December. The State Department last month issued a travel advisory on China. It cautions Americans, especially Americans originally from China, that there may be a risk of being detained upon returning to China if they have at any time engaged in activities or published writings critical of Chinese government policies. The detentions further strain the U.S./China relationship in the wake of last month's spy plane collision and Washington's decision to offer Taiwan $4 billion in high-tech weapons sales. Still, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher stopped short of strong condemnation of Beijing.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We have various disagreements about human rights. We have serious disagreements about the handling of some of these cases involving Americans and American citizens. I think, overall, there is an approach to China that says we look to cooperate with China as China becomes more and more a part of the world, as China adopts more and more international standards, whether it's for human rights, for trade, or for non-proliferation or activities in the United Nations.

RAY SUAREZ: We now get three perspectives on the story: James Lilley was ambassador to China in the first Bush Administration; Benjamin Ladner is president of American University where one of the detainees, Gao Zhan, is a faculty research scholar; and Donald Clark is a law professor at the University of Washington's School of Law in Seattle; he's written extensively about China's criminal legal system. The Chinese embassy declined our request to appear.
Ambassador Lilley, given the number of detainees, given the trajectories of these stories, what do you think is going on?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I think the Chinese are doing this for a number of reasons. First of all, I think they're trying to intimidate the overseas Chinese community; they figure they've got them because they've gone through the great leap forward and cultural revolution, they can push them around for a while and then get them back. They want to intimidate them and let them know who's boss. Number two, they want to make the U.S. look impotent because we can't defend the Chinese. This humiliates the United States and there's not much we can do about it. They grab one of our people, hold them, and we complain. Then again I think the other aspect is that Colonel Shu, one of their leading four-star colonels, defected; he was involved with military intelligence. I think this has upset them very much, as well as the leaking of the Tiananmen Papers. They've been running around all over China trying to nail who did it, and trying to stop the distribution. And we also have the Buddhist Wheel Society, how did this huge demonstration take place, it's linked to the outside, there's foreign subversion. I think this whole business of the - the underground churches, there's a whole retinue of things and they've developed what they call a strike hard campaign, and this means that people are going to get hurt.

RAY SUAREZ: But at the same time other parts of Chinese officialdom are trying to welcome back overseas Chinese, ones who have gotten technical training, education, and skills in the rest of the world, to welcome back overseas Chinese who can bring inward investment. Is there a split at the top in China on how to deal with these people?

JAMES LILLEY: No, I don't think so. I think the Chinese can handle contradictions very easily. You might live and struggle against - it's part of their psychology, and this idea of purification of the nation through persecuting thought from, it's in Jonathan Spence's book "Treason by the Book." Read it, it's a very interesting study during the Ming Dynasty in this whole process. But, yes, they want to get them back, but they want to let them know if you fool around with Taiwan, if you take money we don't like, if you write something we don't want, you're going to get hurt, so keep yourself clean and you can come and help the motherland. If you do not help the motherland, you're going to get badly hurt.

RAY SUAREZ: Donald Clarke, walk us through the machinery, what it says in the law, in both countries is supposed to happen when we run into a problem like this involving people who are either naturalized or permanent residents of the United States.

DONALD CLARKE: When you're speaking of Chinese law, the police may detain a person if they suspect that there has been some crime going on. Now, in Chinese law there's a distinction between detention and arrest, arrest being a formal process at which a charge has to be brought. Originally, according to the Chinese criminal procedure law, the police, if you were to stretch all the rules as far as possible, have a total of about 37 days within which to detain a suspect and conduct further investigation to decide whether they want to bring a charge. Then, after that 37-day period is up, then they by that time must report to the procuracy, which is essentially the equivalent of perhaps we might say the district attorney's office; they have another seven days to decide on whether to bring charges. So there's a total of about 44 days perhaps after the initial detention within which charges are supposed to be brought, and certainly in the cases of Li Shaomin and Gao Zhan, for example, that 44-day period seems to have been extended - sorry, exceeded considerably.

RAY SUAREZ: But is there a different set of laws that get triggered when it's involving someone who's a resident of a foreign country, or a naturalized citizen of a foreign country, regardless of whether they were born in China?

DONALD CLARKE: The Chinese criminal code does distinguish between crimes committed outside of China and crimes committed inside China, and there is a slightly - or a different standard -- for example, for Chinese citizens as opposed to non-Chinese citizens. And for example, Chinese citizens abroad could be liable for certain activities, such as, for example, counterrevolutionary - they don't call them counterrevolutionary activities anymore - I'm sorry - endangering state security, whereas, for example, U.S. citizens would not. On the other hand, once one is on Chinese soil, then the same standard applies. There's no special exemption for you simply because you happen to be a citizen of a foreign country. On the other hand, that's the same rule that applies in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Benjamin Ladner, this is not the kind of thing that University presidents normally do, try to get their people out of jail. How has this been going? What have your person-to-person contacts with the Chinese government involved?

BENJAMIN LADNER: Actually, it's happened to us two or three times. We are a very global and international university, but, you're right; it is a little out of the ordinary. I actually traveled to
China to try to make some contact with Dr. Gao, who is a faculty researcher at American University, and was unsuccessful in my attempts to try to reach her personally or to meet with the officials there. But we have organized protests. Our students have protested in a silent vigil outside the Chinese embassy here. We have organized about 400 signatures of scholars around the world who have special interest in China, held a press conference in New York. We've held a press conference on our own campus. We have other steps that will be taken to try to publicize what's happening there. We were very concerned not only the political aspects that the ambassador has referred to, but the humanitarian and academic aspects. It's a very serious thing when academics engaged in legitimate research, as Dr. Gao certainly was on our campus, become embroiled in a situation that says research is really a matter of state security; it's not. And we think there's a very serious issue here when the government steps in to intervene because somebody is doing legitimate research.

RAY SUAREZ: You didn't get to see Gao Zhan. Did you get to see anybody who could at least explain to you what was going on?

BENJAMIN LADNER: No. All of my attempts to try to meet with the ministry there were rebuffed. I spent a couple of days in Beijing, worked with our embassy. I delivered a letter to the - to the foreign ministry from her husband and her young son, a very touching letter, and I also composed a new letter and sent it to the foreign minister - Minister Tang, who is the foreign minister of China.

RAY SUAREZ: And any response at all?

BENJAMIN LADNER: No response at all. I did get a response from the ambassador here in Washington who indicated that this was a matter of Chinese law and that She had confessed and that she was an agent "overseas countries." I've tried to press to find out what that means. One of the troubling things is that there is no information coming out. We don't know where she is being held. She has no legal representation as far as we know. We can't really get any information about her situation. We're concerned because she has a heart condition and some stomach ailments. And we would like to get some, just on a humanitarian basis, some information about her condition. But we've been unable to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Ambassador, does the United States have any leverage at all in a case like this?

JAMES LILLEY: It's hard to exert leverage, because we care about our citizens, and we will go way out to support them. And the Chinese basically don't. They don't... These are political instruments. They've got us. We're going to stretch ourselves to do something about this. What they do is they tie it into the nationalism they're pushing so hard. EP-3 plane intrudes into so- called Chinese air space. The Cox report smears China for intelligence activities in the United States. A major military officer defects. The United States is going after China. These people are instruments of the United States. It's very hard to get at it because Dr. Gao is a Chinese citizen. She carries a green card. The other two cases are Americans, and we have had access, I understand, to Li Shaomin three times. You know, basically we're supposed to get access every 30 days. But there's another factor and you have to watch very carefully, is the idea that confession is part of the Chinese system - an extraction of confessions is part of their means to getting people to confess guilt. It's not a very nice procedure. There is no fifth amendment. You turn the pressure on somebody like Harry Wu when they caught him coming in. Even he had to confess to sins. They get you in there, they hold you, they have got you under control to get out. To get out, you have got to confess. And this is very tough to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Clarke, in the case of the American citizens, can the United States demand that certain conditions be observed, that lawyers from the United States can assist in their defense? Just how can this country be of help to its citizens held overseas?

DONALD CLARKE: As far as I know, the most the United States can do under the relevant treaties is simply to demand access. Now I think as a matter of diplomacy, the United States is well within its rights and certainly the bounds of being reasonable to suggest that China observe its own law. One of the requirements of Chinese law, which the embassy, I understand, claims is being followed, is that upon detention-let upon arrest-- but even at the moment of detention, the relatives, for example, need to be informed of the reason for the detention and also the location, where the person is being held in custody. That has not been done. From the moment... from the time of the first coercive act by the security authorities, which would include, of course detention, or the time of the first interrogation, whichever comes earlier, Chinese criminal procedure law also says that the suspects are to be given access to a lawyer. So I think one thing is simply to suggest that China observe its own provisions of law in these matters.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we wrap up, Professor Clark, would you advise Chinese-born U.S. Nationals to stay out of the People's Republic?

DONALD CLARKE: It's very hard to say, because one troubling aspect of these detentions is that they seem so random. I mean, people have theories, of course, about why someone may have been arrested and why another person may not have been arrested. But certainly they're not detaining every single, obviously every single Chinese-born American -- nor even every single Chinese-born American academic. So at this point, it's hard to know. It's certainly risky I would say.

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