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Scholar: Beijing Afraid of Change - 2001-12-11

Over the past two years, Chinese authorities have detained a half-dozen scholars and businessmen with links to the United States and accused them of espionage.

One of them, women's studies scholar Gao Zhan, calls the spy charges ridiculous, and accuses Beijing of misusing its courts and police to seize people and hold them for a sort of diplomatic ransom.

American University researcher Gao Zhan was arrested at the Beijing airport in February as she was heading home to the United States after a visit with family members in China. Officials also detained her husband and took away their five-year-old son.

"That was the moment that was the hardest. That was also the moment I was separated from my son and my husband. That was the most terrifying moment in my life," she said. The boy, a U.S. citizen, was released about a month later along with his father, who, like Ms. Gao, was a permanent U.S. resident. They returned to the United States.

Ms. Gao, a social scientist specializing in marriage, family and women's issues, then spent months in detention. She endured frequent interrogations that sometimes went on for 12 hours at a time.

Mrs. Zhan says she still has nightmares. "Six months in detention have a permanent impact on my mind. I can't get rid of it," she said.

In a three-hour trial that was closed to the public, she was convicted of spying for Taiwan and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In a VOA interview, Ms. Gao says she is not a spy, but a victim of what she calls China's "hostage diplomacy."

"It was very obvious that I was used as a bargaining chip for the Chinese government to bargain with the U.S. government. I was just a pawn for the Chinese government to be engaged yet again in their hostage diplomacy," she said.

She says Beijing detained scholars and others with U.S. ties to test President Bush's China policy and to bargain for such things as U.S. acquiescence on China hosting the 2008 Olympic Games.

Ms. Gao and another scholar were granted medical parole just before a visit to China by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Many political analysts interpreted the parole as a bid to improve relations between Beijing and Washington.

Researcher Xiao Qiang, with the private group "Human Rights in China," says Ms. Gao's experience is similar to that of several other people with U.S. links who have been detained in an intensifying crackdown by China's internal security forces.

Mr. Xiao said Ms. Gao and others were used to trade for concessions in foreign relations. He said there is an ironic twist to these cases: as economic liberalization reduces government control in many areas of Chinese life, officials are stepping up political repression in other areas.

"The state security ministry and the ministry of public security, have gained significant amounts of power than before, and resources. And they became much more aggressive and active in treating the citizens and playing a role in control of society since the government has been retreating from the other area of control in society," Mr. Xiao said.

Ms. Gao thinks scholars were singled out because they represent new thinking that could threaten the Communist Party's power monopoly in China. "The Chinese government hates these people because these people are agents of change, to the area of ideology. So this is also the area the Chinese government is most afraid of, bringing any changes, so they want to do anything and everything to keep themselves in power," Ms. Gao explained.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi has said Ms. Gao's case was handled according to Chinese law. He says there is evidence that she was spying for Taiwan and that she admitted her crime.

Ms. Gao says she could not admit something she did not do. She does admit that some of her research in the past was funded by a foundation on Taiwan. But she says many scholars got money from the same place and her work involved academic issues not security or military matters.

Back in the United States, Ms. Gao's husband quickly became a U.S. citizen with the help of members of Congress. But Ms. Gao says her efforts to become an naturalized American are currently "stalled in bureaucracy" in the United States.

Gao Zhan says she still has 10 family members living in China and she intends to return to her native country some day to visit them. In the meantime, she is writing a book about her experiences.