China and the US may be entering another game of geopolitical fingerpointing - and the timing is not apt. This time it's scholars, not a US spy plane, that could drag the two superpowers into a scrape.
Earlier this month - a day after Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics - an American citizen was tried for spying, convicted, and sentenced to expulsion. Yesterday, Li Shaomin, a US citizen, was expected to arrive by plane in San Francisco.
Mr. Li is one of four US-based scholars of Chinese origin who have been arrested and charged with spying for Taiwain during the past six months. Two others are being held on other charges.
But with US Secretary of State Colin Powell due here Saturday on a mission to improve relations, expectations rose yesterday that two other US-based Chinese scholars under detention may be sent home as well. Secretary Powell, in Hanoi yesterday, said that "several cases are now on the way to resolution on humanitarian grounds."
Two of the scholars, Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang - permanent US residents - were sentenced in a closed trial this week to 10 years in prison for espionage. US officials who tried to witness the trial of Ms. Gao, an American University sociologist, were denied admission to the court. And it was reported that they had not even been aware that the trial of Mr. Qin was pending.
If the two scholars are released in the next 24 hours, it's likely to brighten the atmosphere for Powell's visit. US and China officials say they want to set the tone for President Bush's visit to China in October. Ultimately, neither the US nor China want to spoil relations - that have only recently begun to warm - over the "detained scholars" issue.
Sources in Beijing say China did not time the legal proceedings against the two scholars to coincide with Powell's visit. Indeed, US sources reportedly do not want to link the two issues - creating high expectations for a release, or further endangering ties that went into a brief free-fall this spring when a Chinese jet and US military surveillance plane collided over the South China Sea. China detained the US crew for 9 1/2 days before releasing them.
In some ways, both sides are in a bind. China and the US have both made a series of amicable public statements in recent weeks. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang this week said that "following a period of difficulty, China is ready to work with the US," according to the New China News Service.
China has taken the view that the US will regard not just the detained scholars, but human rights in general, as a separate track or category inside the relationship.
The stated US position is to regard such issues as part of the overall mix of elements that define ties. In one of the strongest statements on the scholars to date, Powell told reporters this week that "there are other people who have been detained, and there are other people who could be detained tomorrow. Just removing one or two cases that might be high-profile cases for the moment isn't enough." Powell said that the release of Gao itself would not answer the problem.
Beijing has long used the tactic of detaining scholars, activists, and labor leaders - and releasing them prior to important diplomatic events, as a show of benevolence. It famously released dissident Wei Jingsheng just prior to Beijing's 1993 Olympic bid vote - then reincarcerated him shortly after Beijing lost the bid.
In recent years, the Chinese have developed a greater sense of their rising presence on the world stage. At the same time, conflicts are appearing between the authoritarian state's internal security practices and the image China seeks for itself abroad. Experts say the Chinese know the practice of releasing dissidents as geopolitical pawns can appear craven. That is one reason it is suspected that Princeton doctorate Li Shaomin was tried and expelled after the Olympic bid.
Just so, a number of Chinese living abroad have said that Beijing will expel Gao and Qin - after Powell leaves Beijing on Saturday.
The entire episode may also constitute a "test" of the Bush administration, says one former National Security Council staffer. In the first years of the Clinton administration, "there were no US-China relations; we were hung up on human rights," the former staffer said. "We decided we weren't doing human rights any good by not engaging China, so we moved them down the priority list. But that was then."
It has never been clear exactly why China detained five US-based scholars over the past year. Gao, Li, and Qin were charged with working for a Taiwanese espionage agency, and collecting and passing Chinese state secrets. Yet Gao's husband, her lawyer, and some legal experts in the US say that the material she passed qualified as academic, was not of a military nature, and that even the most questionable materials are on a level that can be obtained in some Beijing bookstores.
Speculation about the motive for the detentions vary. Some Chinese sources say the detentions are a general warning to scholars proficient in Chinese language. Others feel the timing of the arrests coincides with an effort to "smoke out" the masterminds behind the "Tiananmen Papers," released in January. They are a book-length blow-by-blow insider's account of political decisions made by Chinese leaders during the 1989 uprising. And some observers say that Chinese pique may have also been aroused by the defection to the US of a top military officer in February.
Two days ago, the Chinese state media said the case of Li showed a "rampant" degree of Taiwanese espionage in China. "Li Shaomin was in want of nothing," argued the People's Daily, "but [he] decided to enter Taiwanese intelligence under the spell of a hostile ideology."
Some Western sources in Beijing say that, despite sentiment felt in the US for Chinese scholars, it is possible they were doing some form of intelligence gathering. But under the opaque Chinese criminal justice system and security blanket, it is impossible to ascertain.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor