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Li Shaomin

July 16, 2001

Still recovering from an unexpected ordeal


On July 14, one day after Beijing was selected as the host of the 2008 Olympic Games, Dr. Li Shaomin was tried on charges of espionage. The result, announced the same day, was a forgone conclusion: guilty as charged. However, Li was not sentenced to prison, but to deportation. He left China on July 25, after five months in detention. In the interview below, Ilaria Maria Sala talked to Li Shaomin about his experiences.

Li, 44, a respected and widely published scholar who grew up in China, received a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton and is a naturalized US citizen. He is the son of Li Honglin, a prominent liberal scholar close to Hu Yaobang, the former Chinese Communist Party general secretary whose death sparked the 1989 demonstrations. Li senior was imprisoned for 10 months without charge following the crackdown on the 1989 protests.

For the past five years, Li Shaomin has been teaching at the City University of Hong Kong. He has also worked in business and as a consultant, including to the United Nations. He is now an associate professor in City University’s marketing department. Following his release, after a short stay in the United States, he returned to Hong Kong and his teaching.

The case against Li also involved US residents Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang, and a Chinese scholar and official, Qu Wei. In a separate trial some days after Li’s, Gao and Qin were also convicted of spying and expelled from China, while Qu received a 13-year prison term (see box). Their alleged “espionage” involved collecting “intelligence” about PRC policies on Taiwan, as well as contacts with the Taiwan-based Three People’s Principles China Unification Alliance. There is no indication that this “intelligence” included any documents formally classified as “secret,” but some of the materials were reportedly “internal circulation” (neibu).





ILS: Did you ever expect that something like this could happen to you?

Li: It came as a shock to me. I did not know at all that this was coming.

ILS: Have you recovered from your ordeal?

Li: Not yet. I thought it would be easier. I thought, “I am a tough guy,” but now I am learning that mental recovery is not that easy. I have become very forgetful, I find it hard to concentrate. I would forget even things I know very well.

ILS: What was your detention like?

Li: At first, I was living under constant surveillance. Under Chinese law, they can give this to anyone for up to six months [under the “supervised residence” (jianshi zhuju) procedure]. At the beginning, I was taken to a secret detention place, near Beijing, which was like a big house, where I was by myself, with no other inmates, and with two guards, on shift. Constant surveillance means that four eyes are on you all the time: when you sleep, when you are on the loo. It was about 10 different guards, who had different shifts. At the beginning they did not let me read, but afterwards I fought for my right to read.

It was pretty much like solitary confinement. This went on for two and a half months.

For five months I had no right to my watch, or to my glasses, and I am rather short sighted.

ILS: What happened after that?

Li: After that, they put me in jail, for two and a half months more. I had two roommates, and I could see that I was treated much better than other Chinese detainees. I did not witness any physical abuse, nor was I a victim of it. For example, water supply is rationed, but I have always drunk a lot of water, so I was allowed to have a little bit more.

They still did not allow me to see a lawyer, though, until 20 days before the trial. And I was never alone with him. Once, I wanted to ask him what chances he thought I had, but I did not because I realized we were under surveillance, so I never felt I could ask.

But it is better if I do not talk about other inmates, because it could be dangerous for them.

ILS: What were you accused of?

Li: I was accused of endangering state security. I kept asking: “How? Why?” All I got to know was that the bill of prosecution [indictment] mentioned that my detention had something to do with Taiwan relations, so in fact they charged me with being a spy for Taiwan. They said I got money from the Three Principles Unification Alliance, which they said is a spy agency, and that I worked and collected information for this spy agency.

In fact, it is a research foundation, that gives many grants to Chinese academics and institutions, too. A lot of their activities are conducive toward reunification, and the head of the Alliance, Mr. Ma, is highly regarded.

Of course it was a ridiculous charge, how could they say I am a spy when I had only accepted some research grants! But that was used as “evidence” of my spying activities.

ILS: Did they ever tell you why they considered it a spy agency?

Li: Only once in court did they finally tell me what is considered a state secret. But by their own definition, then, the material I used for research purposes is not a state secret.

ILS: Can you describe the court hearing?

Li: The trial started at around nine in the morning. I still had no watch so I do not know for sure. Around 12, I think, they had a lunch break and they came back with the verdict. Which read: guilty of espionage, and my punishment was deportation. But if they really thought I was a spy, would they not give me a much harsher penalty? Espionage would be a heavy crime.

The trial was very strange. Normally, they would adjourn and wait three months. While they just came back after lunch break, which seemed very short to me. Then they said “all rise” and the judge, a woman, read out the verdict, which also was quite short, and that was it. In the room there was only me, my lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, the American consul and his interpreter.

ILS: How much different from 20 years ago do you think your trial was?

Li: There is a lot of progress. For one, now they are changing from guilty presumption to almost innocent presumption. Now the law says that if someone was detained and after a few days there is not enough evidence against this person, he or she must be set free. Implicitly, I interpret this as innocent presumption. Of course, then the problem is between the written law and the current practice.

According to the law, for example, you should have access to a lawyer on the first day of detention. I did not have that right. I asked for a legal code book, but they never gave it to me. Whenever I think of this I am so angry. They even took away from me my dictionary, and they said “We do not want people to pick out the right words to defend themselves.” I did not witness any physical abuse, but I never got any of my legal rights. They make sure that it is very, very hard that you can do anything to defend yourself.

In court, and also before, during my detention, I said: "Show me! Show me that anything I have used is state secret!" I was tried by a secret court, and I was never showed anything that could be used as proof about my “guilt.” They never showed any evidence.

I also asked for legal advice, and my interrogator replied: “You can ask me for it, I know a lot about the law.”

And also, throughout the detention, both the police and the guards all assume that you must be guilty. That is one of the worst parts. They assume that there must be something wrong with you if you get arrested.

ILS: What happened after your trial?

Li: I wanted to appeal, to prove my innocence. But my lawyer said to forget about it, just to get out, and that an appeal would have done no good. My father gave me the same advice, but I had wanted an appeal because I was so angry.

ILS: Why do you think all this has happened to you?

Li: I wish I knew. I have no idea why. I asked the guards many times. I told them, I have brought many investors to China. I have done a lot for my country. Last year in May I was invited by the Central Government to give a lecture to senior cadres about networking, just last May, and it even made it to the 7pm TV news.

I said this to the secret police who were guarding me, I told them: “Look at all I did for China! Why do you treat me like this?” They said, “We respect you,” but when I asked why then would they not set me free, they just said they could not.

I do not know why me. Of course, I did take part in the democracy movement. I was getting prepared for the worst, I was telling myself I would endure as long as it took, but still, I thought: How could they do this to me?

ILS: What impact did your detention have on you?

Li: You go through stages. At first, any one who runs into this is very angry. I could not adjust, accept this cruel reality. But you just have to accept it. The first couple of weeks were just horrible, with nobody to talk to, so I started talking to myself. Some guards asked me whether I was a Buddhist, as they thought I was praying aloud. But whatever you do, you find yourself pushed back to a very depressed frame of mind. At the second stage, you really have to make an effort to be very positive, use your sense of humor, keep a very broad perspective. That is just the type of mentality I started to develop towards the end. I think I grew up a lot during those five months. You have to keep control of yourself or otherwise you break down.

One day, when I was in jail, the American consul brought me a letter from one of my Chinese students, showing support from the entire class. It moved me to tears, it was such a difficult and brave thing to do to write to me while in jail! I was allowed to read the letter but the guards would not let me keep it.

ILS: Are you able to look into the future now?

Li: I really do not… If you ask, I would only say, I have to put this behind me and go on, but I have been affected more than I thought.

ILS: How did you find your father when you got back?

Li: He was just very happy to see me back. But he was much older than when I left for China. The impact on his health has been devastating. He is 76 now, and he was imprisoned after Tiananmen.

ILS: Were you surprised that you could come back to Hong Kong?

Li: I was surprised by the fact that there was a debate about whether I could come back to Hong Kong. First, I did nothing wrong, for being deported you must do something wrong, while I am innocent. At the trial, I asked to be brought back to Hong Kong, but they refused, they said I was being deported to the United States.

ILS: How much do you think that your case was influenced by the dynamics of Sino-US relations?

Li: I do not know. But I do know that there have been a lot of people who have been helping me in the United States. While I was in jail I received monthly visits from the American Consulate, and once I came out they went all the way to help me. I am most grateful. The help I received from the US government was great, from all the
different branches, from Congress and the Administration.

ILS: Has this changed you?

Li: This does not really change my views on China. I was critical, I am still critical. The economic reforms have gone a long way, and brought double digit-growth to the country. But in political and legal reforms, China has not done much.

ILS: Will you be able to continue your research on China?

Li: I do not work on China for the sake of the Chinese government. I could just go back to the States and do research on E commerce in the States. There are quite a few Q & As going on in my mind at the moment. I think sometimes it just needs a little bit of time before you know what to do next. I would love to go back to China, one day.

I think China will change. It is changing. It is just slower than many people would hope.

ILS: Will you get involved in politics again?

Li: For the time being, I just do not have the time for it. I am still putting myself back together, getting fully back into my work. The department has been very supportive. They threw a party for me when I got back.

ILS: Do you think that your ordeal has scared other people who do research on China?

Li: Of course. I have heard that other people are concerned. My case has had such a chilling effect on Hong Kong. Hong Kong people, as well as the government of Hong Kong, must work to protect their own rights.

There is a friend of mine, who lives in Australia, who was in jail for 10 years, and who was very worried about me during my detention. He told me a story about those restaurants were they eat monkey brains. All the monkeys are held in a cage together, and the guest selects the monkey he wants to eat. When one is selected, the other monkeys just push the chosen one forward, for “sacrifice.” On the other hand, oxen, which are supposed to be much less intelligent than monkeys, protect each other when they see that one has been selected for slaughter. It is a story that has impressed me a lot. The way in which intelligent monkeys behave is much worse. It is for this that I say that we need more oxen and less monkeys. The most effective way to protect yourself is to protect the others first.

People collected about 2,000 signatures to ask for my release, and I am very grateful that so many people were willing to sign their names. Academics consider themselves to be smart people, yet we are not really well known for doing things collectively. This time, also some prominent persons decided to come forward and put their names on the petition on my behalf, I was really moved.

Ilaria Maria Sala is a Hong Kong-based journalist.



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