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China: U.S. To Push For Release Of Detained Scholars

By Gabriela Pecic

China is now holding more than 30 scholars who are American citizens or residents of the United States. Beijing accuses them of threatening the country's national security. A committee of the U.S. Congress recently heard from the families of these prisoners, and explored ways to bring pressure on China to release the captives.

Washington, 22 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. diplomat says Washington will continue to urge China to release several detained American scholars of Chinese descent. But he stressed that there are limits to the pressure it can bring.

James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the House of Representatives International Relations Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. places a high priority on protecting the rights of American citizens -- and others holding U.S. passports -- when they travel abroad.

Chinese prisons now hold more than 30 American citizens. Among them are Li Shaomin, an American citizen, and Gao Zhan, a permanent U.S. resident. Li is an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong. Zhan is an American University researcher who has not been heard from since her husband and son were separated from her on February 11 in China.

Relatives of both scholars testified at Tuesday's hearing.

Liu Yingli, Li's wife, told the committee that her husband is not a dissident nor a political activist, but a teacher.

"It's four months of grief and pain, and four months of worry and fear. But we are American citizens. We should not have to live with such a fears."

China has given no firm explanation of why these people are being held, other than to cite national security concerns.

The U.S. State Department has issued a warning that people of Chinese descent who have been publicly critical of the Chinese government should now be careful about visiting mainland China. But Kelley said Washington is not prepared to issue threats or deadlines. As he explained: "There's always a danger when you make threats that, if they're too casually made, you're called on them [challenged], and then they're not carried out. Sometimes that's happened in the American government in the past, and then you're worse off than you were before."

Congressman Henry Hyde, the committee chairman, asked whether the State Department would consider recommending that President George W. Bush make the release of these prisoners a condition for his trip to Shanghai for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in October. Several witnesses said that condition would be appropriate.

One member of the committee, Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), suggested that the president invite the families of the scholars to meet with him at the White House to show that American concern is felt at the highest level of government.

Congressman Edward Royce (R-California) said China appears to have embraced only one of two important Western values -- capitalism, but not freedom. He suggested boycotting Chinese goods at a time when Beijing is getting closer to membership in the World Trade Organization.

Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) noted that about 55,000 Chinese students are studying in America, but Washington does not scrutinize their activities.

At the end of discussion, Donghua Xue, Gao's husband, said he thinks the U.S. government should work as hard for the release of the academics as it did for the crewmembers of an American surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on a Chinese island on April 1.