BEIJING – Sometime into his long detention by China's feared state security agents, American geologist Xue Feng had something to show U.S. consular officials on their monthly visit. He rolled up his sleeve, revealing the burns where his interrogators pressed lit cigarettes into his arm.
Xue also had something to say: He wanted his previously unpublicized detention made public in hopes that the outcry would win his release.
But Xue did not get his wish. His wife balked, as did the U.S.-based consultancy that employed him until months before he was detained, both saying that going public might hurt rather than help his case. The U.S. Embassy, caught between his desire to go public and his wife's wish for privacy, worked behind-the-scenes for his release.
So two years after disappearing into custody, the University of Chicago-trained Xue (pronounced shway) remains held at an unknown location in Beijing, charged with stealing state secrets over the purchase of a commercial database on the oil industry. His case has been batted inconclusively between prosecutors and the courts, which twice asked for more evidence, according to a summary of the case prepared by Xue's wife and seen by The Associated Press.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama raised Xue's case at his Beijing summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao, said a White House official on the trip, in the latest and highest-level intervention.
More than an instance of abusive, intransigent Chinese justice, Xue's case raises disturbing questions about the quiet lobbying foreign governments, companies and the families of detainees often use, believing it more effective with an authoritarian Chinese leadership.
"Under difficult and dangerous circumstances, Dr. Xue made it clear that he wanted the American people to learn of his ordeal. I have little doubt that had his wishes been respected, his case would have already been resolved," said John Kamm, a human rights campaigner with a two-decade track record of getting prisoners released and whom the State Department turned to this month for help.
Beijing's State Security Bureau and the Procuratorate, or prosecutor's office, declined comment. A spokesman for the city's No. 1 Intermediate Court, a Mr. Niu, said Xue's trial "is still in mid-process," where, according to the case summary, it has been since July.
Xue's wife, Nan Kang, who was born in China like her husband and who lives with their children outside Houston, Texas, has hired a lawyer. She said she wanted to keep her husband's detention quiet for fear that going public would have repercussions for their parents in China and disturb their two children, especially their young son.
Kang declined to comment further publicly. In the case summary she wrote: "My husband denies the charge against him, and he believes that he was helping China attract inward investment and to improve the Chinese economy."
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said that it has monitored Xue's case since soon after his arrest, visiting him over 20 times, delivering messages from his family and pressing for his release. It declined to release further details and would only say that Xue asked for his detention to be made public "some time ago."
U.S. governments have for years weighed whether jailed dissidents and American prisoners are better served by public pressure, closed-door diplomacy or a combination of the two. The Obama administration has tried to keep any likely disputes over human rights, a perennial irritant in relations, from damaging a broader agenda crowded with the economic crisis, climate change, nuclear proliferation and other global issues.
The AP learned of Xue's case last week. The U.S. Embassy initially requested that publication be withheld, saying it may harm attempts under way to gain his release. But in recent days, the embassy has said it detects no progress on the case. Xue's wife has asked the case not be made public out of concern for her family. Given Xue's wishes to go public and the lack of progress, the AP decided to publish.
"I have been writing letters to members of Congress, the Senate, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, at least two ambassadors in Beijing — Huntsman and Randt — trying hard over time to raise his case and make sure everyone was aware of it," said David Rowley, a geo-sciences professor at the University of Chicago who was Xue's doctorate thesis adviser. "I have tried to be an advocate, but in the wishes of Dr. Xue's wife, I have tried to keep this out of the public eye and tried to deal with this privately."
In pursuing Xue, Chinese agencies ignored their own laws. Authorities did not respond when the U.S. Embassy asked his whereabouts shortly after he disappeared on Nov. 20, 2007, and only three weeks later did consular officials get to see him — far beyond the periods for notification and visits required by China's regulations and its consular agreement with the U.S., said Kamm and legal experts.
Xue's treatment contrasts with that of a similar case, involving a China-born, naturalized Australian executive. The detention in July of Stern Hu, an executive with the global mining giant Rio Tinto who was charged with stealing state secrets — information on iron ore negotiating strategies — brought an angry public reaction from the Australian government. The charges were reduced to bribery and infringing trade secrets, and Australian officials say Hu has not been mistreated.
"Rio Tinto has been cast as a one off: Businesses don't need to worry," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on China's legal system at New York University School of Law who has been consulted about Xue. But "businesses are trying to get information all the time. Obviously they are being watched."
Like Hu, Xue was a highly accomplished professional who returned to China after success abroad. Born near the central city of Xi'an, Xue went to Chicago to get his Ph.D., bringing along his wife. He worked in the geophysical sciences laboratory for most of the 1990s and was seen as driven and meticulous.
"He was a very good student," said Rowley, the thesis adviser. "He worked very hard, was a very dedicated individual and quite careful in his analyses."
Xue earned his degree, studying high-pressure rock formations in northern China's Dabie Mountains. He picked up a green-card residency permit and eventually U.S. citizenship. In March 2001, the prestigious energy consulting firm IHS Energy — now IHS Inc. based in Colorado — hired Xue to be its Northeast Asia manager.
In China, Xue cultivated contacts in a rapidly growing petroleum industry, gathering in-depth, up-to-date information that IHS could provide to clients, mostly foreign energy companies eager to join the boom. At one point, he helped arrange the purchase of a detailed database about the oil industry.
Rowley said the database was developed by another company and was intended for one of China's state-run offshore oil companies. Cohen, the lawyer, said Xue arranged the sale and a contract was signed between the seller, who was a person Xue knew, and the buyer, IHS.
"On the surface, it looked like a legitimate sale of business information," said Cohen.
Chinese officials have wide powers to classify materials as state secrets, sometimes reclassifying information already in the public domain. Having basic maps still sometimes gets foreigners in trouble. And the government regards its petroleum industry as strategic.
Since Xue's disappearance, he has been held at an undisclosed location and brought to a courthouse for his consular visits. At some point, his jailers beat him, struck him on the head with an ashtray as well as applying the lit cigarettes to his arm. Nearly six months into his detention, the U.S. Embassy received the formal reason given for his arrest. "He is suspected of the crime of gathering intelligence for abroad," read an April 2008 notice from the Foreign Ministry.
IHS denies any connection to Xue's alleged crime, saying that he left the company in January, 10 months before his November disappearance; his wife said it was July. "We have no notification from the Chinese government or any Chinese authorities that IHS is involved," said company spokesman Ed Mattix.
IHS too, Mattix said, was working behind the scenes to free Xue but believes that publicity would hurt the cause.
While efforts on Xue's behalf plodded on, his case was twice heard in a Beijing court in July and a third time this month. No U.S. Embassy officials attended, saying they were told state secrets charges precluded their attendance.