Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page A16

BEIJING, March 27 -- The Foreign Ministry today accused an American University-based scholar detained in China since mid-February of acting as a paid spy for overseas intelligence agencies and dismissed U.S. protests over the treatment of her son as unfounded.

The spying charge lodged against the detained Chinese woman, Gao Zhan, seemed to complicate a case that has irritated U.S.-China relations at the start of the Bush administration. U.S. officials have been especially upset about China's treatment of Gao's 5-year-old son, Andrew, who is a U.S. citizen.

The boy was taken from his parents and held for 26 days, in what authorities have described as a kindergarten, before he was released. Gao's husband, Xue Donghua, was released at the same time. China did not notify the U.S. Embassy about any of the detentions.

The new allegation comes less than a week after President Bush urged Gao's release in a White House meeting with China's top foreign policy official, Qian Qichen. At the time, Qian said Gao may not have been aware she was violating Chinese law, according to U.S. officials.

But the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, told a news conference today that Gao "accepted missions from overseas intelligence agencies and took funds for spying activities in mainland China."

Sun did not name any agency or country, or offer any evidence to support the charges. His use of the word overseas, however, suggested he was not referring to Taiwan's intelligence service, because Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington that there is no substance to the accusations, and Xue, Gao's husband, said in a Radio Free Asia interview that her work was "purely academic."

"We still continue to urge the Chinese government to release Ms. Gao immediately so that she can be reunited with her family in the United States," Boucher said. "We are looking for a more forthcoming response from the Chinese."

Previously, Chinese authorities had said Gao, 40, a Chinese political scientist who immigrated to the United States in 1989 and has applied for U.S. citizenship, was suspected of damaging state security and had "openly confessed her crimes."

Jerome Cohen, a New York lawyer with long experience in China who is representing Gao, said the Foreign Ministry's statement was worrying. "This is serious business," he said. "This suggests we may be in for a longer fight."

Cohen dismissed the spying allegation, saying Gao has visited China about once a year since 1989 for brief research trips or visits with her family. He said China's mention of payments might be references to Gao's role as treasurer of the Association of Chinese Political Studies, a U.S.-based group that receives funding from a variety of sources. Xue said earlier that during his detention he was questioned about his wife's research trips to Taiwan.

"They're grasping at straws to try to build a case and justify what they've done," Cohen said. "They have to justify detaining her now because they're under enormous heat from their own government."

Chen Weixing, president of the Association of Chinese Political Studies, a 15-year-old organization of professors and students, said China has no reason to be suspicious of the group. He described it as a nonprofit, independent academic organization operating on a shoestring budget, with funding primarily from various foundations.

He said the group receives no funding from the U.S. government, but has received from funds in the past from other governmental sources, including the Chinese Embassy in Washington. He said the association does not sponsor research, but uses its funds only to organize an annual conference and occasional symposiums.

Chen said the group has organized trips to Taiwan -- Gao went on two of them -- and other academic exchanges, but participants arrange for funding from their home institutions. Local institutions arrange housing, he said.

He said he and other scholars are worried about traveling to China now.

"I know Gao Zhan very well, and my personal view is she wasn't engaged in any espionage at all," Chen said. "The line between spying and academic research can be blurred. If you get funding to do research on a subject, they can try to say it's espionage."

Cohen said state security officials might be under pressure in part because President Jiang Zemin has suggested Gao is guilty in a public statement. In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors last week, Jiang said he was unaware of the case but that if Gao and her family "had been subjected to a certain legal procedure, it means they must have violated the law to a certain extent."

The Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected U.S. protests over Andrew's treatment, saying he was never detained but held in a kindergarten with parental consent.

"The U.S. protest is without foundation and China has refused to accept it," Sun said. "Authorities, proceeding from a humanitarian standpoint after getting the consent of the couple, put the son, Andrew Xue, under the care of a kindergarten in Beijing. The kindergarten took good care of him, and Andrew lived just as any other child in that kindergarten."

But Xue said he never consented for Andrew to be held in the kindergarten. In fact, he said he told police his son was a U.S. citizen and repeatedly asked them to let him see Andrew or at least to allow the boy to stay with relatives. He said police responded by suggesting he offer evidence to incriminate his wife.

Gao often writes about Chinese women's issues and China-Taiwan relations and in one recent article argued that women in Taiwan have more opportunities for political participation than those in China. She and her family had just celebrated Chinese New Year with relatives in Nanjing and Xian and were preparing to return to Washington when they were detained on Feb. 11 at the Beijing airport, her husband said.