TOPICS > Politics

Scholars Freed

July 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more, we go to Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and co-editor of the book “The Tiananmen Papers;” Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia; and Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was born in China and is now a U.S. citizen.

Mike Jendrzejczyk, why were these scholars released and why were these, of all the people who were detained, released?

MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: Well, clearly it’s related to Powell’s visit to Beijing on Saturday. More importantly, I think, it’s related to the last several months. Since the Bush administration came into office, the Chinese government has been anxious to establish a firmer and more positive footing with President Bush due to visit Shanghai for an important summit in October. And he’s also been invited for a state visit in Beijing. Clearly China recognized it was in their interest to resolve at least some of these cases.

And I think it’s no accident that the people released today were the ones who were, in fact, given the best treatment. Those included not only U.S. citizens but, more importantly, those that had relatives abroad who were able to campaign and lobby on their behalf. They also had strong congressional backing, bipartisan backing. In fact, the president was asked to intervene at a much earlier stage with a unanimous resolution adopted by the House of Representatives in late June.

Finally, in early July, he picked up the phone and called Jiang Zemin. So I think now the administration has several challenges ahead of them. One is to move beyond these incidents. They have to get the other scholars and detained American citizens and permanent residents released. That has to happen first. But, secondly, they have to negotiate the terms for Bush’s visit. And here I think they have some leverage, which I certainly hope they’ll use on behalf of human rights.

These people should never have been detained to begin with. And they certainly shouldn’t be giving the Chinese government too much credit for now finally releasing them especially after convicting them of espionage.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Nathan, what do you make of the timing of the release and its extent?

ANDREW NATHAN: The Chinese are looking for a way to be on a good working relationship with the Bush administration. They have some big issues to deal with: Taiwan, our support for Taiwan, the national missile defense. And as Bush is coming to visit China, they would like to get rid of small irritants and be able to talk about those big issues.

RAY SUAREZ: And Minxin Pei, first, do you agree with your colleagues’ analysis and what do you want to add?

MINXIN PEI: I fully agree with what Mike and Andy said. I also want to add that these people who are released is a sign that the cases built against them were pretty weak to begin with, because I believe had they been genuine spies for Taiwan, the political pressure inside China would have prevented them from being released even for the good of U.S.-China relations.

RAY SUAREZ: So even though two of them were convicted and sentenced to ten years, that is, what, a symbolic measure?

MINXIN PEI: I think that’s purely a political gesture, because they’ve got to satisfy some of their domestic constituents who do believe that anti-espionage is a very important national security issue. On the other hand, there are people in China who look at materials presented against these people and would conclude that cases were not on solid ground.

RAY SUAREZ: But did some of the people engage in what might be, in the Chinese context, risky behavior, that would bring the attention of officials on to them?

MINXIN PEI: I think what these people did, according to press reports, may be, as you described it, risky. But I do not believe that what they did constituted anything resembling espionage.

MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: I would certainly agree. More than 400 academics in 14 countries sent direct appeals to Jiang Zemin saying this will chill not only relations between the U.S. and China, but more importantly, it will make it much more difficult for open academic research to be undertaken. A number of these scholars also worked as consultants for American companies.

Some of them were engaged in developing dot-com companies in South China. So I think China had to make a very clear decision here not only to resolve these cases for the sake of U.S.-China relations but also because they might pay an even larger price over the long term. In Hong Kong, a number of Chinese-based scholars working from Hong Kong had already postponed or canceled visits to the mainland for fear that they would be arbitrarily detained for simply collecting information that’s generally available.

But under Chinese law, espionage, state secrets, subversion: these terms are very broadly defined, giving the authorities extremely arbitrary authority to basically detain almost anyone on these kinds of charges.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you go back and forth regularly?

MINXIN PEI: I do go back and forth. I make about four to five trips to China every year. But I do know close friends who have canceled their planned trips to China. I also know people who have become very, very nervous about visiting China for academic reasons, or doing fieldwork in China.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this chill that kind of academic work? Will there be less rigorous inquiry going on on the part of scholars in China?

MINXIN PEI: I think before the release, the level of anxiety among the Chinese scholarly community here was very high. I think the release perhaps has done something to reduce the level of anxiety, but I think over the long term the negative impact will be there. I think people like us will be far more careful, perhaps impose some sort of self-censorship in terms of using the methodologies that we would like to use to conduct research in China.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Nathan, there are rules that govern international disputes over detained nationals. Did either side get to follow the rules? Did they go by the book on these arrests?

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, my colleagues have pointed out that the Chinese law on secrets and subversion is very broad. The criminal procedural law is also pretty favorable to the government, but even there the government didn’t obey it. They didn’t give foreign officials access to these people when they were supposed to do so, they didn’t allow them to mount a defense as soon as they were supposed to do so.

Your report said that they kept the child and the husband and the wife separate for a long period of time. All that violates their own procedures. So these cases certainly showed the Chinese law, both the substantive and procedural law, for what it is: very, very flawed.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you make of the statement, Andy Nathan, from Jiaxuan basically saying, Secretary Powell is coming and we want to clear the decks? It seemed to be a fairly straightforward admission surrounding these releases, something unusual, almost.

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, they like to emphasize to us — as we do to them — that our courts are independent. You heard the ambassador say that. Of course, that’s not true. I read the Jiaxuan statement probably as kind of a commentary saying that this happy event has cleared the decks. I don’t think it was intended as an admission that this was a political decision, but it clearly was a political decision.

RAY SUAREZ: And what, Mike Jendrzejczyk, what do you make of Secretary Powell’s statement that U.S.-China relations are on the upswing? Are they on the upswing?

MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: I think he had to say that but he has some other problems. For example, the administration would like to restart a formal bilateral dialogue on human rights, which China suspended after the accidental American bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. China may say, now look, you can have your dialogue but that means we want to focus in our high-level relations on ongoing economic and political issues, and we’ll relegate discussion of human rights to these polite diplomatic exchanges.

He may also be — Powell — asked to promise that the U.S. wouldn’t support a critical resolution against China at next year’s meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Though the U.S. has lost a seat at the commission for the time being, it certainly can help to both co-sponsor and promote such a resolution. So I think Powell has got still has a very difficult balancing act ahead of him, especially with the Bush visit coming up which, of course, has enormous symbolic significance.

I think if he’s smart, he’ll begin this weekend the process of negotiating some significant steps to advance human rights in advance of Bush’s visit, to make it clear this issue will remain central on the administration’s agenda, regardless of what happens with just these individual cases, as important as they are.

RAY SUAREZ: Minxin Pei, do you agree the main event is the presidential visit rather than the Powell visit?

MINXIN PEI: Oh, yes. I think Powell’s visit is laying the ground for President Bush’s visit to China in October. I think both sides have strong incentives to make this visit a success. By the way, I think that the release of the Chinese scholars… is really a continuation of the recent upswing in bilateral relations. That began with the conclusion of the EP-3 incident and also with the American position on China’s hosting the Olympics. What happened today in Beijing further shows that both sides are interested in improving this very difficult relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Not only did the United States not oppose the Chinese bid for the 2008 Olympics, there was not a lot of noise earlier in the year from official sources about these detentions. Was this handled in a quieter way, that maybe turned out to be more successful?

MINXIN PEI: I think it was handled in exactly the right way. Initially, before the facts came out, the U.S. took a relatively restrained role. However, when facts became more clear, and as more and more people are convinced that these individuals did not do anything wrong, I think the voices in the political community in this country have become far more strong and insistent on their release.

MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: I don’t agree. I mean, in April the administration warned Americans of Chinese descent, especially those that have visited Taiwan, have been critical of China, that they may be at risk traveling to China. And yet it wasn’t until late June and again early July that the administration moved beyond fairly routine interventions here in Washington and in Beijing that clearly weren’t working.

I think had they increased the level of diplomatic activity much sooner, we might have seen, perhaps, an earlier result. But, remember, this was in the wake of the Hainan incident. Clearly the administration was looking to buy some time, I think. And, again, they were forced, their hand was forced by the intervention not only of members of Congress, but of academics here and abroad. So I think, in fact, the administration deserves a kind of mixed report card on how they’ve handled this.

Certainly we’re all delighted that Powell was able to finally get at least a few of the most prominent cases resolved. But again this might have been done perhaps differently and certainly might have been done sooner, recognizing that they did have the big card to play of Bush’s trip, which is something they clearly didn’t want to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Some brief final thoughts, Andy Nathan, on the Bush administration’s report card on the detentions.

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, I think Secretary Powell and President Bush both made a good point. There are deeper problems here than just a few American citizens and permanent residents. There are deep problems of the Chinese legal system. There’s a long list of other scholars who have been arrested and other people who are not scholars who have been arrested who were not Americans and who were not on the list that the Americans can present to the Chinese. I’m afraid they may not get released because they’re not on that list.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Nathan, Mike Jendrzejczyk, Minxin Pei, thank you all.