HONG KONG — An American academic, Li Shaomin, has been formally arrested and charged with spying for Taiwan, a U.S. consular official in Hong Kong confirmed today.
"We have been notified that on May 15, the Chinese government formally arrested and charged Li Shaomin for spying against China on behalf of Taiwan," said Robert Laing, a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate here. "We are very concerned by this development and will continue to express our concern about Mr. Li's case to the Chinese government."
Li's arrest on charges of spying constitutes the latest twist in an apparent campaign of intimidation by Beijing aimed at academics of Chinese origin who also have strong ties to the West.
He is the first American among a string of recently detained scholars to face such charges, and because he is a citizen, his arrest is almost certain to further strain relations between the U.S. and China that have soured dramatically since President Bush took office nearly four months ago.
Human rights advocates immediately pressed for a sharp U.S. response and predicted that the Bush administration would be under pressure to provide one.
"I think the United States should insist on full disclosure of all charges against Professor Li," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Asia director at the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "It should also ask for any and all evidence to justify this decision to charge him and urge the Chinese to give him immediate access to both family members and his attorneys."
Li, who was educated at Princeton and Harvard, teaches in the business department at the City University of Hong Kong.
He was detained by Chinese authorities Feb. 25 in the southern city of Shenzhen during what his wife described as a routine overnight trip to the mainland that was similar to many previous ones. He was taken to Beijing and had been held without charge until this week.
Two weeks before Li was picked up, a researcher at American University in Washington, Gao Zhan, was detained as she was leaving China with her family at the end of a brief visit.
Gao, who has subsequently also been charged by Chinese authorities with spying for unspecified foreign intelligence agencies, is a U.S. resident. Her 5-year-old son and her husband are American citizens. A third detainee affiliated with Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, Oxford-educated social scientist Xu Zerong, has been held since October.
More than 500 China scholars, mainly from the United States and Hong Kong, have signed two open letters to Chinese President Jiang Zemin urging mainland authorities to either release the detained academics or provide them due process under the law.
Li's family and colleagues in Hong Kong reacted sharply to the news of his arrest.
"I think it's outrageous," Li's wife, Liu Yingli, said by telephone. "My husband is a scholar. He didn't do anything wrong."
Liu said that she had contacted a lawyer in Beijing to assist her husband but that the attorney had yet to gain access to him.
A colleague of Li at the City University of Hong Kong, Mak Hoi Wah, demanded more details about the charges and criticized the lack of legal help offered Li.
"We may not know what someone may have done in China or elsewhere, but everyone should be accorded due process," he said. "China has to make this process transparent."
Mak collected more than 100 signatures for an open letter on Li's behalf this month. The letter, which did not address the question of whether he was guilty of any crime, focused on the need for due process.
Citing an example of the claimed lack of due process, Mak said in a telephone interview early today that Xu's family had not been contacted by Chinese authorities or otherwise informed of his whereabouts seven months after his detention.
Gao also has reportedly been denied requests for legal help.
"As an American citizen, Li has greater leverage to demand access," Jendrzejczyk said. "The real question now is how the Chinese respond to whatever level" of diplomacy the U.S. uses to intervene.
U.S. Embassy personnel in Beijing apparently learned of the spy charges as they tried to arrange a consular visit with Li earlier this week. Consular officers in Beijing had visited Li on three occasions since his detention.
Members of Congress who had raised concern about Li's detention reportedly received letters recently from Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi claiming that the case against the American academic was compelling and that he had confessed to spying.
However, the charges against Li were only confirmed this week.