China's scare tactics
August 3, 2001
By Claudia Rosett, a member of the Journal's editorial board
With the impending "trial" of Wu Jianmin, an American citizen and the latest U.S.-based scholar detained by Chinese authorities, an ugly pattern is repeating itself. If Beijing sticks to its recent ways, Mr. Wu, like three others last month, will be convicted of spying for Taiwan. Since he will then, in all likelihood, be kicked out of China, what, apart from a very rough spell for him, is there to worry about?
Plenty. In interviews I have had with two of the three scholars released last week -- Li Shaomin and Gao Zhan -- what emerges is an Orwellian picture of a threat to liberal researchers focusing on China, especially to the ethnic Chinese who tend to know the place best.
The central aim seems to be to isolate Taiwan further, and to choke off research that casts Taipei's democratic government in more favorable light than the communist regime in Beijing. The broader goal seems to be to scare the living daylights out of select members of the ethnic Chinese diaspora -- namely, the many liberal thinkers whose ideas hold out hope to the 1.3 billion citizens of China, but who are viewed as vermin by the communists.
Inform or Else
Beijing's methods take their cue straight from the more mind-bending ways of the Soviet Union. For details of what Mr. Li and Ms. Gao experienced while in China's custody, we have to depend on their own accounts. China has supplied almost no solid information beyond the fact that it made accusations and delivered "verdicts." But it appears from the two tales that China's aim was not only to strip these scholars of their defenses, to isolate and bully them, to lie to them and humiliate them, but also to tell them that their only hope of freedom lay not in the actual merits of their cases, but quite specifically in their willingness to inform on others.
Mr. Li -- interviewed on Wednesday by phone from Hong Kong -- described how, during his five months of detention, he was told repeatedly by his interrogators that his fate depended on his having a "good attitude." He says that when he asked what that meant, they told him, "Your attitude is how well you tell us about others." He stresses: "I didn't give them any names."
Ms. Gao, in an interview on Wednesday at her home in McLean, Va., described similar scenes from her nearly six months in detention. "They wanted to use me for information on people here in the U.S.A.," she says. "They were asking me to identify names who might have worked for Taiwan or the FBI. They said, 'You've got to tell us, otherwise you are risking the rest of your life.' " Ms. Gao says she refused to give names. The result was that "they brought me names to identify. I would tell them, yes, I know these people, but they are by no means spies."
The message China's rulers telegraph through these tactics is not simply that Chinese democrats should directly fear the Beijing regime. It is that democratic Chinese thinkers -- anywhere -- had better also fear and distrust each other, because any of them, once arrested, can expect brutal pressure to turn against his or her colleagues. There is also an implied threat that anyone who has had friendly dealings with Taiwan, even in free countries such as the U.S., risks a stretch in jail.
Mr. Li, for instance, published an article in The Wall Street Journal in 1989, in which he argued that "China ought to learn from Taiwan." Ms. Gao's research over the past decade has led her to such findings as this: "Women on Taiwan have more freedom and choice than women on the mainland."
Here's how it played out for Mr. Li, who told me of his journey through China's state security procedures, starting on the evening of Feb. 25, when he arrived at the Hong Kong border crossing for a routine overnight trip into China. As usual, Mr. Li handed his U.S. passport to a Chinese immigration official, who punched in his information, then told him to wait. Three hours later, a group of state security agents showed up and took him by van to a small hotel, where they told him they were detaining him. "I said, for what?" recounts Mr. Li. They said they did not know.
The next day, secret police escorted Mr. Li on a commercial flight to Beijing, telling him only that this would be a short trip and that he could return to Hong Kong the next day. Instead, in Beijing, he was shuttled to a detention house, where security agents began to interrogate him. Mr. Li recalls that they tried to make him feel isolated, telling him: "Don't hope that the American government will help you. You are a Chinese, born in China. You are not a real American."
His interrogators told him that he had been "under surveillance" since the early 1990s, adding, "We know everything about you." His requests to see a lawyer, or even to have access to legal texts, were refused for more than four months -- until less than two weeks before his "trial."
Ms. Gao describes a similar ordeal. Last winter, she went with her husband and five-year-old son to visit relatives in China. On Feb. 11, as they were about to fly home from Beijing airport, they were surrounded by state security agents and hustled off in three separate directions. Her husband, then a U.S. resident, and her little son, a U.S. citizen, were held incommunicado for 26 days, then deported.
Ms. Gao was taken, like Mr. Li, to a detention house in the vicinity of Beijing, where the interrogations also began right away. She was watched constantly by four female guards. There was no privacy, even in the bathroom, and no contact with the outside world. When she asked about her husband and son, she was told during the her interrogations -- conducted under a glaring light -- that she must first supply information about what she had done "in relation to Taiwan."
For the past seven years Ms. Gao has served as treasurer of a U.S.-based academic group called the Association of Chinese Political Studies, which hosts conferences and organizes trips for academics to both Taiwan and mainland China. Her interrogators pressed her repeatedly for details on the funding and membership of this group, saying, "If you don't have a good attitude, you are going to spend your life in prison."
After seven weeks, Ms. Gao was transferred to a jail cell. One odd twist, she mentions, is that the jail had a small book collection available to prisoners, including a Chinese translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" -- about the Soviet prison camps. This copy was stamped neibu, or "internal," on the cover, meaning that to take it out of China could be considered a crime -- of the same kind the authorities told her she'd committed in bringing out publicly available research documents years before.
For all the furor, China's government has not explained publicly just what these scholars are supposed to have done. But that seems to be precisely the brutal point. The less Beijing says, the more useful a message it sends: that what happened to these scholars could happen in China to almost anyone, almost anytime.
The Free World needs to confront such tactics. Letting them go unchecked, or unpunished, invites the quiet smothering of some of the most powerful intellectual forces for the development of Chinese democracy.