April 2, 2001

There's been a sudden spate of news about scholars of Chinese descent going to China and ending up in the clutches of the Ministry of State Security, Beijing's KGB. On Feb. 11, visiting political scientist Gao Zhan, holder of a U.S. green card, was seized as she was about to leave her native land; her husband and five-year-old son, an American citizen, were held without consular protection for a month. Now we learn that Li Shaomin, an American citizen teaching at Hong Kong's City University, disappeared into secret police custody in Shenzhen on Feb. 25. Xu Zerong, a Hong Kong professor teaching in Guangzhou, met the same fate last August and is still missing.

In none of these cases has the Chinese government released detailed information on how the academics supposedly violated the law. What passes for a judicial process in China will be kept largely secret, even from the accused themselves. This kind of treatment is not new -- Song Yongyi, a U.S.-based sociologist studying the Cultural Revolution, was arrested in 1999 and then released five months later without explanation. And in the interim there have been several similar cases which haven't received widespread attention in part because of family members' fear that publicity would harm chances of early release. So the recent arrests represent an uptick in a continuing trend.

The new U.S. administration, already suspicious of China's intentions toward Taiwan and America, may be inclined to see the recent detentions as hostile gestures. Rather they should be read as challenges. The arrests do deserve a strong response both from Washington and from the academic communities in the U.S. and Hong Kong. But if anything they should be interpreted as signs of the Chinese government's frustration at its inability to control the terms on which it engages the outside world, rather than as a new foreign policy initiative.

The recent comments of President Jiang Zemin to the Washington Post support this theory. Mr. Jiang didn't seem well-briefed on the arrest of Gao Zhan, and expressed surprise that the U.S. side would make such a big deal about it. Whether he is genuinely so clueless about the West's concept of human rights or was just caught off guard, Mr. Jiang didn't seem interested in using the case to signal colder relations with Washington. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the case with China's foreign policy czar Qian Qichen, Mr. Qian sounded more conciliatory notes.

It's possible that the arrests are part of a struggle for influence between China's Foreign Ministry and its security organs. But on balance it's more likely that they are a response by the MSS to several developments. These are typified by the upcoming release of a Chinese-language version of "The Tiananmen Papers," the juiciest bits of which will quickly be available on the Internet. This is already causing anxiety in Beijing.

The loss of such high-level secrets -- including transcripts of China's top leaders in 1989 deciding to use deadly force against student demonstrators -- has no doubt energized the information gatekeepers to redouble their efforts. They are trying to intimidate academics and journalists, particularly those of Chinese descent, who might be the conduits for future leaks. Moreover, now that the Internet allows materials published abroad to pass easily into China, the emphasis must naturally shift from keeping heterodox views out to intimidating those studying sensitive topics so that they censor themselves.

There are various ways to do this. Non-Chinese foreigners are usually threatened with restricted access to the country -- sometimes they are forced to leave China or put on an immigration blacklist. But the MSS believes it can treat ethnic Chinese who hold foreign passports more harshly. The origins of this policy predate the communist regime; imperial China claimed the loyalty of all Chinese, even those living outside the middle kingdom's borders. Even after 1949 China's relations with its Asian neighbors have sometimes been strained by Beijing's efforts to maintain a special relationship with the Han diaspora. Beijing uses this history as a bogus excuse to break agreements that detained Chinese holding foreign passports should have access to consular protection.

These kinds of bullying tactics can be very effective; some academics specializing in China are reluctant to discuss the crackdown on the Falun Gong, for instance, for fear of official retaliation. But China may have overestimated what it can get away with. Its intimidation campaign is most effective when news of victimized academics or journalists spreads to colleagues, but the victims are too afraid to kick up a public fuss and rally those colleagues to their defense. Once the cases move onto the newspaper front pages, however, the victims enjoy martyr status and others become emboldened to follow their lead.

This suggests the best way to fight back. It's a truism of the schoolyard that bullies are revealed as cowards when they are faced with resistance. Every case of detention, deportation and blacklisting deserves the widest publicity, and colleagues can emphasize that these actions ruin the environment for productive cooperation with Chinese academic institutions, which crave foreign contact. Pressure can be applied to Western governments to provide the same level of consular protection to all citizens, regardless of ethnic background. Meanwhile, Beijing should also be reminded that while Chinese who have gone abroad are now returning--many of them taking pay cuts in order to help their native land -- they will stop coming if they are treated as spies. Most critical now is that the cases of Ms. Gao and Messrs. Li and Xu are satisfactorily resolved so that scholars won't be intimidated into silence.