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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
China releases scholars - but why?
Li Shaomin
Li Shaomin returned to US on Wednesday
By regional analyst Tim Luard

In the space of two days China has released three American-based academics who had only just been jailed for spying for Taiwan.

There are strong suggestions that the three were merely being used as pawns in a carefully stage-managed piece of political and diplomatic manoeuvring.

On Tuesday, Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang, two permanent US residents who had been detained while visiting China to carry out research, were jailed for 10 years for spying.

Human rights groups described their trials as a sham.

Shockwaves

The shockwaves were felt not only in government circles in Washington but among overseas Chinese, and academics specialising in China, throughout the world.

Gao Zhan
Gao Zhan is on her way to Detroit
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have chosen to live abroad - while retaining what they hoped was the option to return home, even if just for a visit, at some future date.

Was Beijing now sending a deliberate message that if you are born Chinese, you can never criticise China no matter where you may happen to live?

Two days later, Gao and Qin suddenly find themselves released on medical parole.

Another academic - a US citizen based in Hong Kong - has similarly been freed, his spying conviction also apparently no longer valid.

They had all been detained earlier this year when Beijing's relations with the administration of President Bush were going through a very rocky start.

Perfect timing

The releases come as Secretary of State Colin Powell prepares to visit Beijing this weekend - the highest level contact between the two sides since China's detention of the crew of a US spy plane in April and expected to pave the way for a visit by president Bush in October.

Colin Powell and Tang Jiaxuan
Colin Powell and Tang Jiaxuan: Was a deal made in Hanoi?
All the signs are that a deal was agreed on Wednesday at a meeting between Mr Powell and the Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan at the Asean regional forum in Hanoi. If so, it would be a political deal on what in most societies would be considered a matter for the courts.

The Foreign Ministry is one of several parts of the Chinese administration that wants better ties with the US and is generally concerned about China's image abroad. Ever since the arrest of Mrs Gao along with her five-year-old son in February, China had faced growing pressure over the case, including resolutions in the US House and Senate.

The releases fit a pattern - dissidents and others have frequently been arrested or released in China depending on the ups and downs of ties with the US. And clearly, ties are showing some badly-needed improvement, to the relief of the rest of the region.

More still held

But why were these people detained in the first place?

As Mr Powell himself said, it is the whole system that makes such things possible that Washington would really like Beijing to change.

Li Shaomin
US citizen Li: "Went to visit a friend"
China is still holding at least one other US-based academic for alleged spying for Taiwan. A fifth scholar is being held over a business dispute, and a sixth US permanent resident of Chinese birth is in a labour camp for her participation in the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The state security services and other hardline elements in Beijing doubtless insisted on the arrests. And they may now be unhappy at the climbdown implied in the releases.

There are of course similar divisions in the US camp, with the Defence Secretary believing the State Department is too soft on China. And China would say Washington behaved in an equally cynical way with its spying allegations against the scientist Wen Ho Lee, later retracted.

Stage-managed

But the timing of this week's actions suggests the whole thing was stage-managed by the Chinese leadership from the start.

On the one hand, it can be seen as being conciliatory towards the US. At the same time, enough has been done to intimidate all kinds of people.

They include foreign-based academics who will no longer dare do any kind of research on China that could conceivably be interpreted in the wrong light by the communist authorities.

And they also included many students within China itself, who don't have the benefit of US citizenship.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Linda Duffin
"Not for the first time China is using medical parole to rid itself of high profile prisoners"
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"If these scholars had still been in prison when the US Secretary of State arrived it would have been a major irritant"
Jerome A. Cohen, Gao Zhan's lawyer
"We've been sitting on pins and needles for 36 hours"
See also:

18 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
China petitioned over academics
30 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
China arrests another US academic
22 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
China: US academic 'confesses'
21 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
US family detained in China
22 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
US and China agree to differ
22 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Tension in US-China talks
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