A teary-eyed Gao Zhan haltingly expressed love for her family and respect for her adopted country as she returned home to Northern Virginia yesterday after being convicted of espionage and spending 5-1/2 months in a Chinese prison.
“Now I can breathe free and speak freely,” Mrs. Gao said after landing at Washington Dulles International Airport, her husband, Xue Donghua, and young son nearby.
President Bush said yesterday he had spoken with Chinese President Jiang Zemin directly about the matter, and said he hoped her release signaled a change on human rights among Beijing’s leaders.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in Hanoi to attend a conference of Asia-Pacific leaders, called China’s legal system “flawed” and said changes were needed to eliminate harassment.
Mrs. Gao, who is a permanent U.S. resident but not a citizen, was detained Feb. 11 at the Beijing airport after visiting family for the Chinese new year. Her husband and their 5-year-old son also were held, but they were released after 26 days.
Mrs. Gao, an American University sociology fellow, was charged with spying. She was convicted after a three-hour trial Tuesday and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. She was released on medical probation Wednesday.
Though she said she could talk freely, Mrs. Gao declined to give many details about her experience. Her husband and Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican, explained that they are concerned for the safety of the couple’s parents, who live in China.
“On one hand, I’m very happy to be here speaking to you guys,” Mrs. Gao said to the crowd of reporters and photographers. “On the other hand, I’m very concerned for my family back there.”
She said her belief in God and “my firm belief in my innocence got me through.”
“I didn’t have very good food while I was in the detention center,” she allowed. The hardest part, she said, was separation from her husband and their son, Andrew.
“It broke my heart that I couldn’t tell him bedtime stories before I go to sleep,” said Mrs. Gao, smiling at her son. She also said he had grown since she last saw him.
Mr. Allen told her that Andrew was disappointed, too, because he had made Mother’s Day and birthday cards for Mrs. Gao that were never delivered.
Among those greeting Mrs. Gao at the airport were Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, and American University President Benjamin Ladner, who had personally appealed to Chinese officials for her release. Mr. Ladner announced yesterday that Mrs. Gao’s contract had been extended for another year.
Bills introduced in Congress to make Mrs. Gao a U.S. citizen are no longer necessary. Mrs. Gao was preparing for naturalization before she was imprisoned. Mr. Allen said all she now has to do is raise her hand and take the oath of allegiance.
Mr. Xue met his wife at the Detroit airport earlier yesterday, presenting her with a red dress to celebrate her homecoming.
Mr. Xue said it was a very special day after five long months of frustration. He thanked Mr. Bush, Mr. Powell and Congress for their efforts, which he credited for freeing his wife.
Mrs. Gao said Chinese police warned her before her release not to talk, but she said she is writing a book.
“I don’t think I will be allowed to return to China,” said Mrs. Gao. “Right now, I have a hard time talking about it. I’m trying very hard to protect my family back there.”
The State Department yesterday sent a China desk officer to Detroit to welcome Mrs. Gao and it warned China that her case — and those of a handful of other scholars it has detained — were not the only ones that concerned the United States.
“Our concern is broader than just these cases,” said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.
Mr. Reeker said the United States — which has not said officially that the detained people are innocent or guilty of the charges against them — is also asking China to “resolve promptly” cases of U.S. citizen Wu Jianming; U.S. permanent resident Liu Yaping, who is held on criminal charges in Inner Mongolia and is suffering from health problems; and legal permanent resident Teng Chunyan, who was sentenced to three years for collecting information about abuses of Falun Gong adherents in mental hospitals.
Mr. Xue and Mrs. Gao met and were married in China. They came to the United States in 1989. He then took a job at Syracuse University, later becoming a computer systems analyst.
Mrs. Gao has a long list of scholastic theses she has written about Chinese women and families, and Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. The couple and Andrew moved to McLean in 1998.
Yesterday, Mr. Xue expressed thanks to neighbors “for the food and drink you put in front of my door” and other expressions of support since Mrs. Gao’s arrest.
Mrs. Gao said she was momentarily unnerved at the Beijing airport as she prepared to leave. “I saw some of the people who arrested me there but, I wasn’t afraid any longer.
“I’m overwhelmed. I’m trying very hard to protect my family back there. My time in China,” she said after a long pause, “was very difficult.”
“With America behind me, I will not be afraid,” said Mrs. Gao.
Ben Barber contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.