BEIJING – A Beijing appeals court barred U.S. diplomats from attending a hearing Tuesday for an American geologist sentenced to eight years in prison for obtaining information on China's oil industry that the government says are state secrets.
The two-hour-plus hearing in the case of Xue Feng ended without a judgment. He and his lawyer argued the government wrongly applied its broad powers to classify as secrets information that should be commonly available, said the lawyer, Tong Wei.
Outside the Beijing High People's Court, a senior U.S. Embassy official called for Xue's release and return to the U.S. and fumed about the court's decision to exclude American diplomats.
"This case has not been handled with the kind of transparency that would befit a nation which tells us the rule of law is paramount in all judicial proceedings," Robert Goldberg, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, told foreign reporters.
Golberg said a protest was lodged with the Foreign Ministry and the court gave no reason for the exclusion. During Xue's trial, the court used reasons of state secrets to close the proceedings.
Xue's case underscores China's use of its vague state secrets law to restrict the flow of business information. It also highlights the vulnerability of Chinese who take foreign citizenship but return to China to work.
Born in China, the now 45-year-old Xue was known as affable and meticulous while getting his doctorate in geology at the University of Chicago. He, his wife and two children moved to a Houston, Texas, suburb when Xue began working for the energy information and consultancy company now known as IHS Inc.
His appeal comes just a little more than three years after Xue disappeared into custody while on a business trip to China. During his first months in detention, Xue was mistreated. His interrogators stubbed lit cigarettes into his arms, made him sit still for long periods of time and handcuffed him to a chair that he had to hold upright behind his back for an hour.
Washington has grown irritated about the case, as the courthouse statement shows. Yet for most of his time in custody, the U.S. government has mostly preferred to lobby on Xue's behalf quietly behind the scenes, even when Chinese authorities refused to notify the embassy about his detention and excluded diplomats from his trial, contravening U.S.-China consular agreements.
Only a year ago did Washington begin a more public push, after Xue told diplomats about his mistreatment and The Associated Press reported on the case. President Barack Obama raising the matter with China's Hu Jintao a year. Goldberg, the diplomat, hoped that Xue would be released and deported to America before Hu visits Washington in January.
At his trial, which ended with his conviction in July, Xue acknowledged that he had gathered information on China's oil industry for IHS. Among his successes was obtaining a database that contained the coordinates and other geological information for more than 32,000 oil and gas wells belonging to the country's two largest and state-run oil companies, China National Petroleum Corporation and China Petrochemical Corporation.
But both at his trial and in documents submitted to the appeals court, Xue said that such information is publicly and commercially available in most parts of the world and that it seemed the information he procured was classified after his arrest. The database had originally been prepared for sale and was being advertised on the Internet.
"That's the focal point of the case — when were these declared secrets," said Tong, the lawyer.
A second defendant, Li Yongbo, who arranged the sale of the database, is also involved in the appeal. Two other defendants, Chen Mengjin and Li Dongxu, both geologists for China National Petroleum and former schoolmates of Xue's, were released from jail following July's trial, said Tong. Their 2 1/2-year sentences for providing Xue with documents, power-point presentations and other materials on the oil and gas industry were effectively commuted to time-served.