MCLEAN, VA. — Her lips curved in a slight Mona Lisa smile, the image of Chinese scholar Gao Zhan gazes serenely from a mantle portrait in a McLean, Va., duplex, as if to soften the shock of her enigmatic disappearance.
Below, in a living room cluttered with toys, clothing, and dishes of partly eaten food, Dr. Gao's 5-year-old son, Andrew, stares blankly at animated figures bouncing on a TV screen. Sinking into the couch, her husband agonizes over Gao's arrest in China on the grave but nebulous charge of espionage.
"I am a desperate husband," he says. "I need my wife back."
For more than 100 days, Gao has been held incommunicado by China's state security ministry. Since then, no one outside China's government has learned where Gao is, her state of health, or anything else about her. Authorities, using a vague state-secrets law, have even denied her right to see a lawyer.
While no one knows for sure, Gao is apparently a victim of the broadening of targets by Beijing's security police last winter to include Chinese-born scholars and writers living overseas, many in the United States. Like Gao, a visiting sociologist at American University, the new targets are not dissidents, but are well connected in the mainland, and, in some cases, Taiwan. (Gao's case may be especially sensitive if, as she has told friends, her father is a retired senior military officer in China.)
"Chinese authorities are increasingly nervous about the fact that they are losing control of information," says Xiao Qiang of New York-based Human Rights in China. "They are trying to assert their control over this population [of overseas scholars] and threaten them."
At least four others like Gao are in custody today. All are Western-trained researchers who returned to China to probe social, historical, and political issues potentially sensitive for Beijing. All are suspected of spying for Taiwan or foreign intelligence agencies, a crime punishable by death. Several others have been detained for questioning for a few days and released, say US officials and human rights advocates.
The detentions come as China tightens security in the wake of embarrassing breaches, including the apparent leak of documents on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the defection of a high-ranking Chinese Army officer, according to China experts and Bush administration officials.
The string of arrests has worsened the already troubled US-China relationship and sent a chill through the community of US-based Chinese scholars, many of whom are postponing trips and research on the mainland.
The irony, Gao's friends note, is that China is hurting some of the people best positioned to help the country modernize. The very attributes that may have led to Gao's jailing - her cosmopolitanism, her probing of social issues, the ease with which she crossed the cultural and linguistic borders between China, America, and Taiwan - are qualities China needs in its people to succeed in a global age, they say. "The more transnational you become," says Kim Chang, a US professor and friend of Gao, "the more suspect you are."
* * *
It was a hazy, gray mid-February morning in Beijing. Gao, husband Xue Donghua, and Andrew were about to catch a flight home after a three-week holiday with Andrew's grandparents in Nanjing and Xi'an. But as the family approached the Northwest Airlines ticket counter at Beijing Airport, a dozen men suddenly surrounded them, whisking them out a side exit.
"Wang zhei bian lai! [Come this way!]" the men hissed. Once outside, they shoved the three into separate waiting vehicles and sped off.
Blindfolded in the sedan's back seat, barricaded by four men who refused to speak to him, Mr. Xue at first thought he was being kidnapped. "I was thinking, 'I'll give them my company laptop, my camera ... everything,' " says Xue, a computer systems analyst at Electronic Data Systems Corp. "I was scared, because I heard that in China when they get your money, they kill you."
The car rolled down a bumpy, rural road and stopped at a brick house with metal bars on the windows. Braced for the worst, Xue was relieved when his captors said they worked for China's Ministry of State Security. But his anxiety returned as the agents brushed aside questions about his wife and son.
"That's none of your business," they snapped. Instead, for hours each day over the next week, the agents grilled Xue about the details of his wife's trips to Taiwan, her contacts, her research. If he withheld information, they warned, he wouldn't see Gao or Andrew again.
"You are trying to force a confession!" Xue blurted out one afternoon.
"What? We didn't beat you," said the agents.
"This is harsher than a beating," Xue replied.
After 26 days, on March 8, the agents abruptly told Xue that he and his son would be freed. They blindfolded him again and drove him to a Beijing "boarding" kindergarten. There, among pint-sized beds and chairs, he found Andrew, so numb that at first he didn't recognize his father. When he did, the two embraced in tears.
Once back in McLean, Xue learned that friends had feared the family was kidnapped and murdered. "Our church was even planning a memorial service."
For 10 days, Xue struggled with whether to ignore the threats of the state security ministry and go public with Gao's case. Ultimately, it was the changes he saw in his son that compelled him to act. Clingy and withdrawn, Andrew was afraid to go to the bathroom alone. Every night, he demanded to sleep beside his father.
"I realized that we were not dealing with people who had any human concerns," he says. "We were dealing with people who could separate a 5-year-old boy from his parents for 26 days." Silence, he decided, was not an option. He picked up the phone and dialed a New York human rights group. Four days later, President Bush publicly protested China's holding of the boy, who is an American citizen, in violation of a US-China consular accord.
Today, Andrew rarely talks about what happened, but Xue knows the trauma is deep. One recent day, Andrew paused as he played with a shark toy in their apartment. "Beijing airport is a bad place," he muttered to himself. "The bad guys took us."
* * *
In July 1989, a month after the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, Gao Zhan arrived at Syracuse University in New York State amid an influx of thousands of students from China to the United States. Gao immediately stood out, friends say, for the ease with which she tapped into American campus life.
The petite, extroverted Nanjing native became vice president of the international students group and published a cultural magazine. She and Xue hosted parties for graduate students at their campus flat, cooking boiled pork dumplings and other Chinese dishes.
Academically, Gao impressed professors as an outspoken PhD candidate who was passionate about her research into gender roles in a changing China.
"If there was anyone who had less difficulty adapting [to American life], it was Gao Zhan," says Skip Greenblatt, an academic adviser at Syracuse.
In fact, Gao is part of a growing, influential new generation of native Chinese educated abroad, mainly in the US and Europe. In the past 20 years since China began opening to the world, 320,000 Chinese have studied overseas, soaking in advanced learning and Western ideas. About two-thirds have not returned to China, choosing like Gao to reside abroad.
Gao is a keen observer of this group of newly transplanted Chinese. In her 1997 dissertation, "The Sojourning Life as Problematic," she explores cases of marital breakdown among Chinese students struggling with new gender roles influenced by American culture.
In recent years, Gao broadened her research to examine, often critically, the roles women play socially and politically in China, Taiwan, and the US.
Yet what many would see as tremendous assets - her open-mindedness, talent, and global contacts - apparently become threatening in the eyes of state security officials. Beijijng's leaders are well aware that, historically, revolutions have been sprearheaded by Chinese who lived overseas - from Sun Yat-sen to Deng Xiaoping.
Gao may have irked Chinese officials by publishing articles in two New York dissident publications. And on her resume, she cites ties to the Center for Modern China at Princeton, N.J., founded by supporters of democratic reform.
Still, Gao maintained close contacts with China. She accepted an invitation to spring festival celebrations at the Chinese Embassy in Washington as recently as last year, Xue says. She also stayed in touch with universities and women's groups in Nanjing. She returned to China every 18 months on average, Xue says, to visit family, do research, and occasionally teach at Nanjing University.
At the time of her arrest, she was soliciting funding for the NUWA Foundation, which she created in 1999 to provide job training and aid to unemployed women in Jiangsu Province.
But Gao's connections in Taiwan are apparently what drew the greatest scrutiny from Chinese security police. In 1995 and 1999, Gao traveled to Taiwan as a board member of the Association of Chinese Political Studies, a loosely organized group of about 200 scholars around the world. The trips lasted about two weeks and were hosted by the China Reunification Alliance, a nongovernmental group in Taipei that promotes the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China "under the principle of liberty and democracy," according to another scholar on the trip. They included meetings with Taiwanese legislators, media, and officials in charge of cross-strait relations.
"One thread that's common [to recent detentions] is the Taiwan thread," says a Bush administration official.
Still, friends and colleagues were stunned to learn of Gao's formal arrest April 2 - one day after the US surveillance-plane collision near China - on charges of "accepting money from a foreign intelligence agency and participating in espionage activities in China," presumably related to Taiwan.
"I cannot believe she could be a spy," says a scholar who traveled to Taiwan with Gao. Recalling her cracking jokes on long bus trips across the island, he said she seemed "a little naive."
Many colleagues feel that, in a sense, Gao may be suffering for her continuing concern for her homeland. "She cared about China. That's why she kept going back," says Ms. Chang, a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. "That makes it even more tragic."
* * *
Back from another press conference one sultry evening in late May, Xue sounds exhausted after weeks working at his computer job, single-handedly parenting Andrew, and waging a one-man campaign to free his wife.
He has held candlelight vigils, nagged State Department officials, and lobbied Congress to pass bills naming Gao a US citizen. He has written to President Bush, urging him to do more. Indeed, Xue chided Bush for caring more about the return of the US EP-3 surveillance plane than about the return of Gao and other detained scholars. "Their life and freedom are more valuable than an aircraft, even if it's a very expensive one," he wrote April 30.
Bush has responded, on May 11 publicly calling on China to treat the detained US citizens and residents fairly.
Xue fears that his wife is now a virtual hostage of tensions in US-China relations - a bargaining chip in negotiations between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one. He's also worried about the possibility that China is barring access to her because she has been tortured.
"If they do something to her, they will pay for it," he says, his voice shaking.
At home one recent evening, Xue is haunted by the memory that as security agents broke up the family at Beijing Airport, he was unable in the confusion to catch a glimpse of Gao's face.
Sitting on the carpet nearby, Andrew fumbles with a broken toy and refuses to eat his cold noodles. On the living room wall, across from Gao's portrait, hangs one of the boy's drawings. Three purple and orange stick figures hold hands, under the words "God Bless Our Family in 2001."
Other Chinese literati jailed by their homeland
Mr. Li, an American citizen, was detained Feb. 25 upon arriving to visit friends in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. He was charged May 15 with spying for Taiwan. A teacher at City University of Hong Kong, Li earned a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University in the 1980s and then worked at AT&T. He is the son of Li Honglin, once a prominent party reformer who was detained after the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
A researcher at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and permanent US resident, Mr. Song was detained in Beijing in August 1999 and held for six months on charges of spying and stealing state secrets. He had gathered used books and articles on Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a dark era in Communist China. Song says the detentions are an attack on academic freedom and scholarly links with Taiwan and the US.
The Oxford-trained historian of military topics has been held since last August.
Wu Jianmin, Qin Guangguang
Mr. Wu, a US citizen and writer on Chinese politics, has been held since April 8 on suspicion of spying for Taiwan. Mr. Qin, a permanent US resident, was detained in December on suspicion of stealing state secrets.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor