The China syndrome

February 18, 2000

Western university links with China are growing. But the imprisonment of US academic Song Yongyi has set alarm bells ringing. Tim Cornwell reports

Kill a rooster to scare a monkey" was the Chinese proverb offered by United States-based researcher Song Yongyi as the explanation for his six-month detention in China. A warning was intended, he says, a "strong message" for China scholars: "If you don't obey us, if you do research we don't like, we will arrest you. If you continue this way, the Chinese police, the national security ministry, will put you in jail."

If researchers have taken a lesson from the affair, so, in all likelihood, has the Chinese security apparatus. When news of Song's arrest was made public, it prompted a surge of academic outrage and tough words on trade from American politicians.

China's State Security Bureau - which at Christmas charged Song with "the illegal purchase and provision of intelligence to bodies outside China" as he pursued his research into the Cultural Revolution - dropped the case at the end of January.

To its credit, Song's employer, Dickinson College, a small, liberal arts institution in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having sought for months to resolve the case discreetly, orchestrated a many-fronted campaign for his release, using a website as a forum. It delivered a petition signed by 101 prominent China scholars to, among other places, China's education department. An online version was "signed" by a further 4,000 people.

"I think the Chinese government had to consider, are these the people we want to alienate?" says David Strand, a colleague of Song's at Dickinson College and a specialist in 20th-century China. "The people who teach about China, write about China?" On the question of who won and who lost, Strand offers a Chinese proverb of his own: "If you fight a battle properly, you never know when victory was achieved."

Song is a 50-year-old former Red Guard who was imprisoned for four years in China in the early 1970s. He was so badly beaten that he still covers the head scars with a toupee. This time, his captors satisfied themselves with taking away his glasses and playing mean-spirited games about the fate of his wife. "I argued with them in every interrogation," Song says proudly. "I won every time."

A Chinese national, though he has lived in the US for 11 years, Song is now reunited with his wife and 18-year-old daughter, Michelle. He says he would not have been arrested if he had carried a US passport, in particular because of China's eagerness to join the World Trade Organisation. The issue of whether Chinese researchers with western institutions can carry out research with impunity or are somehow second-class citizens in the academic community, became a lightning rod in the case. But his detention centre, Song notes, also housed Australian, Canadian and Japanese researchers. "The Chinese aren't afraid of the British," he says. "The only country they fear is the US, because there is big money involved."

On February 20, Song is to swear the oath of allegiance and become a US citizen, in a ceremony originally scheduled for last September, but delayed by his arrest. He will do the deed at Dickinson College, in a public gesture of thanks. "Home means safe, home means warm, home means comfortable," he told students and colleagues celebrating his release. "This is my lifetime home now."

Last August Song was surrounded by ten security agents in a hotel lobby, shortly after dining with four professors from Beijing University. "Your study has become dangerous to our national security," they told him. His wife, Helen Yao, 45, a jewellery designer, was also detained.

Song, a librarian and researcher at Dickinson College since 1997, had returned to China in 1996 and 1998. But his month-long visit in summer 1999 came at a particularly tense time: the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, and Chinese officialdom's alarm over the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Song's first imprisonment in China in 1971 came about when he tried to start a political book club. But this time, it was his research into the Cultural Revolution, the focus of his academic career, building on his own disillusioning experience as a Red Guard, that endangered him. The official Chinese version of the Cultural Revolution, in which millions of Chinese were imprisoned and killed in revolutionary purges between 1966 and 1976, blames the "Gang of Four" who were toppled after Mao's death.

Before his visit, however, Song had delivered a paper reappraising the role of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Laying the period's excesses at the door of the popular Zhou, or blaming Mao himself, is treading on sensitive ground in Chinese scholarship. In between meetings with Chinese academics, Song was buying up old Red Guard newspapers and pamphlets from flea markets and bookstalls. According to scholars, these publications printed the speeches of Chinese Communist leaders and sometimes documents from ransacked archives, now three decades old, whose release was never officially cleared. "These kind of materials," says Song, "show historical truth. That's why they feel (like a) great danger to Chinese national security."

About three boxes of Song's research materials were confiscated. More bizarrely, officials charged Song with "secretly transferring abroad materials and documents" weighing about 315kg. Library staff believe this refers to books ordered by Dickinson College from an import-export bookshop in Beijing over the past two and a half years. All the sales, says Song, were cleared by an in-house customs office.

Song spent the first month of his imprisonment in a 12-foot cell with three other detainees. His glasses were taken from him, leaving him with blurred vision and headaches. His captors fed his fears about his wife, saying she was ill and he could end her incarceration by confessing. While his guards called him "professor", and asked him to teach them English, they continually interrogated him, sometimes late into the night. They told him Helen had labelled him a member of Falun Gong and accused him of ties to its US-based leader, Li Hongzh. Song flatly denied it and insisted on seeing his wife. He was allowed to meet her just twice before her release.

Facing psychological, but no physical, abuse, Song says he kept up his spirits by holding dear a lesson learned in his years in an American college: that academic freedom is fundamental to scholarship. "If this is true," he told himself, "you've done nothing wrong." He insisted to his interrogators that their evidence, the pamphlets he had gathered, showed him to be innocently acquiring materials in the public domain. Song may have fallen victim to the blurred lines in China between what is secret and what is not. The classification nei-bu, for example, covers materials "internal to the government". In the early 1980s, "gathering nei-bu materials for western libraries was a big deal", says Strand. These days, by common practice, it is not.

Michael Oksenberg, a Stanford University political science professor and China specialist, says Song's case was helped by the fact that he was demonstrably pursuing academic research. "It was unfortunate that this man had to pay this price, but we come out of this with both sides a little bit chastened," he says. The release was reassuring, a message to security agents that the law "does not give total leeway to hold anyone that they wish". But it also served as a reminder "that there are security laws in China and it is better not to push the envelope too far".

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