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American Professor Convicted

China: Li Shaomin, held more than four months, is ordered expelled.

July 15, 2001|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — An American professor held in China for more than four months was convicted of espionage Saturday and ordered expelled from the country.

Li Shaomin, 44, who teaches business at City University of Hong Kong, was tried and sentenced in less than five hours at a closed-door trial in western Beijing, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, which was allowed to send a diplomat to observe the proceedings.

The trial came less than 24 hours after Olympic officials awarded Beijing the right to host the 2008 Summer Games, over objections from critics that China's human rights abuses should disqualify it from contention.

Resolution of the case should remove a source of irritation in Sino-U.S. ties, already roiled by the collision in April of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is due in Beijing at the end of this month for a two-day visit in preparation for President Bush's summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the fall.

The state-run New China News Agency said a "large" amount of evidence proved that Li was spying for a Taiwanese organization and passing along information that "harmed [China's] state security."

Chinese officials have said that Li had confessed to his crimes, but Li's wife alleges the charges were trumped up.

China's state security law is a vague catchall that gives authorities broad latitude in arresting and imprisoning people. The Communist regime has used the law to round up dissidents, including scholars and suspected separatists, and then expel them from the country. It was not immediately known when or to where Li would be deported.

There had been speculation that he would be sentenced and swiftly expelled before the Olympic announcement Friday as a way to mute criticism of China's human rights record, but that did not happen.

Instead, Li was summoned to appear in the Beijing No. 1 People's Intermediate Court on Saturday morning. He was represented by a Chinese lawyer hired by his family, said the U.S. Embassy spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The trial began at 9:15 a.m. and ended with the verdict at 2 p.m. after a brief recess.

In a phone call to Jiang last week, Bush raised the issue of Li's detention and that of other American citizens or permanent U.S. residents who have increasingly been targeted by Chinese police as alleged spies. The rash of arrests prompted the State Department to warn American scholars, especially those of Chinese background, about traveling to China.

Li's case "has been a matter of great concern to many people in the United States and one we have raised at high levels with the Chinese government," the embassy spokesman said.

He welcomed China's decision to release Li "so that he can be reunited with his family." Li has a young daughter.

Li was born in China but received his PhD from Princeton University in 1988 and became a U.S. citizen in 1995. Before his arrest, he was teaching at City University of Hong Kong. He has written papers on a variety of topics, including the Chinese economy and political reform in the world's largest remaining Communist country.

He disappeared Feb. 25 after crossing from Hong Kong into the Chinese border city of Shenzhen, which he often visited for research. His family did not know until days later that Chinese police had picked him up. Li's wife, Liu Yingli, who also teaches at City University, denied that her husband spied for anyone and said none of his writings could be deemed so politically sensitive.

One of Li's essays appeared in a 1999 collection edited by Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor and co-editor of the recent book "The Tiananmen Papers," which purports to offer an inside look at the high-level decision-making that led to the use of tanks to crush pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. The book mentions Li's father, a high-ranking former propaganda official who was ousted by the government because of his reformist ideas. The elder Li now lives with his son's family in Hong Kong.

Several other cases of U.S. citizens or permanent residents in detention in China are unresolved.

One is that of Gao Zhan, a Chinese-born sociologist at American University in Washington who was arrested and charged with espionage during a family visit to China in February. The embassy spokesman said it remained unclear when or if Gao or any of the others would be brought to trial.

The various arrests seem to be part of a broader crackdown here on dissent. In recent months, the Beijing regime has intensified its control of the Internet and other media and has stepped up its campaign against political and religious dissidents, including members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and Tibetan monks and nuns.

It was not immediately known why the government chose to expel Li rather than imprison him, as happened in February with Hua Di, a Stanford University researcher who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of leaking state secrets.

Li's case, however, has received more publicity than some of the others, and he has been helped by the efforts of China scholars overseas and Princeton University officials to draw attention to his plight.

In 1999, another U.S.-based researcher, Song Yongyi of Pennsylvania's Dickinson College, was released by Chinese authorities after a lobbying campaign by American lawmakers and academics. Song, whose research focused primarily on the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, was also accused of spying.

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