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New York Times Researcher Sentenced in China

August 25, 2006 at 8:50 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Two closely watched court rulings have just been handed down by the Chinese justice system. Forty-four-year-old Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times who’s been held since 2004, was today cleared of a charge of revealing state secrets. But the same court convicted Zhao of fraud in a separate matter that predated his tenure with the Times. For that, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Yesterday, a court convicted Chen Guangcheng, a 34-year-old, blind human rights activist who had documented allegations of forced abortions in villages around China. He was sentenced to four years, three months in prison, on charges of destroying property and organizing a mob.

And joining me to look at these cases is James Feinerman, professor of Asian legal studies at Georgetown University. He’s just returned from a five- month Fulbright scholarship in China.

Welcome to you.

First, tell us about the case of Mr. Zhao. Remind us, this happened because of an article that appeared in the New York Times?

JAMES FEINERMAN, Georgetown University: The article appeared in the New York Times in 2004, and it predicted correctly that the former leader of China, Jiang Zemin, was going to hand down the last of his three important positions to his successor, Hu Jintao, the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. And for revealing that, Zhao was charged with violating China’s state secrets law.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the story turned out to be right but it got people upset?

JAMES FEINERMAN: That’s correct. And apparently what was even more upsetting than just the report that he was turning over that position was some additional commentary about the fact that there was a struggle about how it would be handed over and what exactly the succession plans would be, that they were more worried about the contention of the top leadership getting out than just the story that he was handing over the position.

JEFFREY BROWN: The case went through various twists and turns. At one point, the charges were dropped, reinstated.

JAMES FEINERMAN: Yes, well, first of all, an additional charge was added sometime after the original charge of violating the state secrets law of fraud. And the fraud that was alleged was something that was supposedly committed by Zhao before he joined the New York Times’ Beijing bureau, when he was a crusading Chinese journalist, and accused of promising to help somebody in a case or a suit that they had by fabricating a story and helping him avoid a possible sentence to the Chinese prison labor camps.

And those charges were subsequently dropped, just shortly before the case then went to trial. They were reinstated. The case went to trial a couple of months ago, and the decision just came down today in China.

The charges

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it was seen as quite unusual that he was acquitted of the major charge, on the state secrets act. Why is that unusual?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Well, it's very unusual for any case that gets as far as an actual trial, especially a high-profile case like this with a kind of foreign connection, of not having an iron-clad surety of a conviction on the original charges once the case gets that far. Cases are usually dropped out of the system earlier on if they're not going to lead to a conviction on those original charges.

But here, I think, the scrutiny that the case had received required the court -- and, again, this is a sophisticated court in Beijing, the center of Chinese governmental power and the capital city -- basically saying that, in their legal analysis, the facts just didn't support the state secrets charge. But they had this additional peg on which to hang a conviction, and they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: The scrutiny that you're referring to, does that include the outside world looking in?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Oh, definitely. I think that one of the things that is a positive development of the last 25 years of opening to the outside world in China's case is that we now know much more about these cases.

Obviously, a case involving someone who worked in the Times Beijing bureau was going to receive a lot of scrutiny. But because of the work of people like Zhao and his counterparts at the Times and other foreign newspapers and journalists, there is a lot coverage of cases that go on even outside of Beijing, all over China, cases that never would have been heard of in the outside world beforehand.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the fraud charge on which he was convicted, I saw that interpreted by some as a kind of face-saving measure almost by the Chinese authorities.

JAMES FEINERMAN: I think it's fair to say that. The fact that it was added after the original charge, so long after the original charges were brought and seemingly unconnected to the events for which the original charge was brought, speak of some sort of attempt to either save face or to just find a graceful way of exiting for the legal officials who had already brought these charges against Mr. Zhao.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you put this case in a larger context, was it seen as sending a message to journalists in China and the international journalists reporting from there?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Definitely. It sends a message, especially to Chinese journalists, that no matter who you work for, even some place like the New York Times, you will not be protected by your employer. In fact, they can't protect you because you're still a citizen of the Chinese state.

But it also sends a chilling message to the foreign journalists who work with these people and rely on them for a lot of their legwork in China that they're putting them at risk, that any time that they make a story that goes forward with information they receive from one of these Chinese co-workers, they're putting them at risk. The foreign journalists at worst will be deported, but the Chinese journalists will spend maybe years in prison.

Human rights activist case

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the case of Chen Guangcheng, tell us about him, a prominent human rights activist?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Yes, he's sometimes described as a barefoot lawyer. He was blind because of an early childhood illness. He taught himself law, and he started representing individual claimants in China who felt that they were denied various welfare benefits to which they were entitled.

But his misfortune came from trying to take another step in his process of representing people who were wrongfully treated in China and attempting to bring a class action on the part of people who were forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations in China. And the local officials cracked down very heavily on him for this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is a local case. This is what I'm trying to distinguish here. What law or what legal authority or what officialdom is he bumping up against here?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Well, in his case, he was bumping up against local and provincial officials in Shandong Province, which is a province east of Beijing.

And I think one of these things that these cases reveal is that what the party and the leadership -- maybe even more at the local and lower levels than at the higher levels -- are really most concerned about is any attempt to try and wrest power from them, to create independent sources of power or people who can bring any kind of meaningful complaint against the government and show that the emperor has no clothes, show that the party and the individual members and government officials who pretend to be representing the interests of the Chinese people really don't do that.

Human rights in China

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a period when it looked as though many press and legal rights were opening up a bit in China. Where are we now? What do these cases suggest?

JAMES FEINERMAN: Well, it's hard to say. On the one hand, it's clear that the glass is half-full, because in many places all around China there's considerable reporting of controversial cases, revelations of government misdeeds. And this continues to go on, despite the outcome in these several cases.

On the other hand, it's clear that, if you get too close, too close to the really sensitive issues or too close to the center of power, as in the case of Mr. Zhao, that then you've entered a forbidden zone. And there's no way of knowing exactly where the line is. So people will self-censor, they'll try and stay back of that line, well back of that line, and not cross over it, because the peril is so great.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, James Feinerman, thanks very much.