- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

Li Shaomin is an inconvenient man. Mr. Li, a U.S. citizen, spent 5 months in a Chinese prison on trumped-up charges of espionage for Taiwan. He languished in a murky ethical twilight zone, bound by the contending forces of Chinese repression and the soothing narcotic myth of American triumphalism.

Li Shaomin's predicament challenges the uneasy détente that has existed along the fault lines of U.S.-China geopolitical tectonics. He arrived home to the United States yesterday morning, but his case, and those of as many as 29 other American hostages, stands as a test of America's resolve to defend the freedom of its citizens and residents. To date, the prospects seem to be mixed.

Mr. Li, an associate professor of marketing at the City University of Hong Kong, made many friends during his seven-year tenure on my staff at AT&T in Basking Ridge, N.J. as he did in graduate school at Princeton. A warm and engaging man with a ready smile and a deep voice, his willingness to help others and his keen intellect marked him well. Certainly, Mr. Li's imprisonment has been an inconvenience to him, to say the least victimized in the penal system of a police state where torture is a standard practice. The disruption of the lives of Liu Yingli and Diana Li, Mr. Li's wife and 9-year-old daughter, has been profound, and the financial and emotional health of their family's future will be sorely tested.

His "detention" has been inconvenient to elements in China's leadership who see continued high levels of foreign investment and trade as the sine qua non to sustaining the economic growth. This, they think, ensures their power and ability to cope with the extraordinarily daunting challenges that confront the country. Mr. Li's long-awaited release conveniently preceded Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to China this week. It is possible that two to five other American citizen and resident academic "detainees" will be released before President Bush's trip to Shanghai in October.

Mr. Li's imprisonment has been particularly inconvenient to the conventional wisdom that U.S.-China trade will inexorably promote political liberalization and democracy in China. This myth is under growing pressure as the world has watched a chilling succession of brutality against Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong adherents, other Chinese citizens, academics and writers. Despite more than 10 years of robust economic growth, China's astonishing suppression continues unabated. In just over three months, China has recently executed more than 1,780 people more than all the nations of the world in three years. The growing clamor within the United States over the imprisonment of Mr. Li and other U.S.-based "detainees" has been inconvenient for some elected officials, yet helped to spur the unanimous passage of resolutions in both houses of Congress that call for the release of Mr. Li and other academics of Chinese ancestry.

The staggering economic opportunity that China represents, with more than 20 percent of the world's population and a clear development imperative, has supported well-financed and politically potent voices in the U.S. government. American businesses have made hard-won investments in China and argue, at times self-servedly, that trade will impel political liberalization. Yet their zealous advocacy for trade has been matched by a thundering silence for human rights in general, and the rights of Americans imprisoned in China in particular. In a co-dependent reciprocity for the silence of their foreign investors, China has refrained from imprisoning the American employees of those firms. Yet despite the reticence of their employers to speak out, the employees of American firms have been uniformly sympathetic and supportive of Li Shaomin and his fellow hostages.

The news of Mr. Li's abduction by agents of the Ministry of State Security sickened his friends, who mobilized to broadcast a widening contagion of political pressure that helped to catalyze his release. This campaign drew together an ad-hoc coalition of his friends, colleagues, graduate alma mater, members of Congress (like Chris Smith, Rush Holt, Bob Torricelli, and Jon Corzine, among others) as well as journalists, human rights activists and concerned citizens.

The task of defending the rights of Americans in China inevitably falls to the U.S. government, amidst the sometimes contradictory goals and demands of its citizens, commercial and strategic interests. As the campaign for the release of Li Shaomin has shown, our government can be responsive to public outrage. To Americans, freedom from unjust seizure is a predicate of liberty. Our government certainly has the means to press for a cessation of China's hostage-taking. In the months to come, we will see if it has the will. The defense of freedom is often inconvenient.

Salvatore F. Cordo is an economist and the executive vice president of Advanced Technology Decisions. He lives in Bloomfield, N.J., and is the executive director of the Friends of Li Shaomin. He can be reached at [email protected]

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