Saturday, May 19, 2001

Any kind of politically sensitive information can be branded "state secrets" by Beijing, according to a human-rights group. This could include news about protests by mainland villagers against their local government or the conditions of detained members of the Falun Gong spiritual group, said Frank Lu Siqing, director of the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in China.

Mr Lu said even matters of public knowledge may be defined as state secrets.

According to the centre, a Hunan dissident who had told overseas radio about villagers' protests was jailed for 10 years in 1999.

In another case, Teng Chunyan, 37, a US green-card holder and Falun Gong follower, lost her appeal against a three-year prison term for spying earlier this month. Teng was convicted of spying and providing state intelligence to foreigners. In its verdict, the court said she had taken foreign journalists to a village in Beijing where they interviewed Falun Gong members being held in an "education centre".

A month after the interview, Teng returned to the area and gave a digital camera to an accomplice to photograph detained [group] members.

Teng was said to have given the photos to foreign journalists in Beijing before they were published overseas.

"It is really difficult for outsiders to understand how the mainland defines what state secrets are," Mr Lu said.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, of the Chinese University's Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, agreed that "state secrets" were defined in political rather than legal terms.

"There is no legal framework in the mainland which can tell people what information is confidential. The definition of state secrets also depends on the political atmosphere," he said.

Professor Lau said scholarly works and the media have been manipulated by senior officials and information was used to attack opponents during power struggles.


Mr Ong, a former mainland judge, said although the State Security Bureau was known for its secretive handling of cases, that did not mean it should be exempted from legal procedures. Under the Criminal Law, the bureau should notify a suspect's family within 24 hours of the arrest. If the detainee is a foreign resident, the consulate of the country concerned should also be alerted.

Although spy trials are held behind closed doors to prevent the revelation of confidential information being used as evidence, the verdict and the reasons behind it should be made public, said Mr Ong.

The defendant is assigned a lawyer by the State Security Bureau.

According to article 110 of the Criminal Law, the penalties for a person found guilty of joining an espionage organisation or accepting a spying mission range from three years in jail to life imprisonment, depending on the nature of the case.

"The State Security Bureau has no privilege under the Criminal Law. The lawyer may not necessarily take sides with the bureau," Mr Ong said. "There is still a possibility that the suspect will be convicted of the spying charge.

"Sometimes, the convict is sent to jail, at other times a medical parole or an exchange with another political prisoner will settle the case. Judges would know how to deliver the sentence according to the political and diplomatic climate at that time."

Cynthia Wan is a staff writer for the Post's news desk.