By Philip P. Pan

Friday, January 31, 2003; Page A14

BEIJING, Jan. 30 -- Chinese police have arrested a U.S. citizen visiting relatives in China on charges he sabotaged radio and television systems on behalf of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, U.S. officials said today.

Charles Li, 37, a businessman and Falun Gong [practitioner] from Menlo Park, Calif., was arrested Jan. 24 immediately after arriving in the southern city of Guangzhou on a flight from California, friends said. Police transferred him two days later to a jail in Yangzhou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai.

A U.S. consular official was allowed to visit Li on Wednesday and reported that he appeared to be in good health, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy said. She said Chinese authorities have charged him with "sabotage of radio and television broadcast systems in Yangzhou."

Falun Gong practitioners, countering an intense and sometimes violent government [persecution], have interrupted state television broadcasts in several cities over the past year by [tapping into] cable systems and satellite signals, then transmitting video footage [exposing] the authorities'torturing and killing fellow practitioners.

The Chinese government, [has responded] with more arrests and tougher sentences, including prison terms as long as 20 years. Although China has jailed its nationals who are U.S. residents but have returned to visit, Li is the first known U.S. citizen caught in the [persecution of] Falun Gong.

Li's girlfriend, Yeong Ching, denied he was involved in any sabotage of broadcasting equipment and said the Chinese government targeted him because he was listed as a contact person for Falun Gong on an overseas Internet site.

"I'm very worried about his safety. He is a Falun Gong practitioner, and the Chinese government has been persecuting Falun Gong," she said by telephone from California. "He's done nothing wrong. This persecution is evil, and I hope people will help by calling police in Yangzhou and demanding that Charles be released."

Yeong said Li immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s and was employed at Harvard University as a medical researcher before going into the business of importing and exporting Chinese traditional medicine. She said he was visiting China to conduct business and visit his family, which is based in the Yangzhou area.

Levi Browde, a Falun Gong spokesman in New York, said Chinese police first detained Li in Yangzhou in October and found him carrying videodiscs defending the group against the government's campaign. Browde said it was unclear how Li departed Yangzhou after that detention. But U.S. officials have told his friends that Chinese police have also accused him of escaping.