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Out in the Open: Can Publicity Help the Plight of Overseas Chinese Detained on the Mainland?

Author: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
November 26, 2009
South China Morning Post


When Chinese law-enforcement officials detain a visitor, his family faces excruciating decisions. This is especially true when the detainee is either a foreigner who used to be a Chinese citizen or a Chinese residing abroad. If the case involves "state secrets", it is more complex.

The hardest decisions concern publicity. Should the case be made public? When? The wife of Rio Tinto mining company executive Stern Hu, a naturalised Australian detained in China since July - initially on suspicion of stealing "state secrets" - was spared this dilemma. His detention was immediately reported by journalists focused on Sino-Australian iron ore negotiations.

The wife of naturalised American petroleum geologist Feng Xue wasn't so lucky. Until the Associated Press revealed her husband's detention last week, Nan Kang, also a naturalised American, had been agonising for two years over whether to go public. Her instincts told her to handle the problem "the Chinese way", trying to quietly mobilise assistance for her husband's release from the United States government, a Beijing lawyer and whatever connections she could muster. Until recently, her husband's former employer, the US company IHS Energy, ignored its responsibility for the case.

Kang worried that going public might worsen her husband's plight by angering Chinese officials and might even harm the couple's parents, who still live in China.



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Sage Advice

Author: Jerome A. Cohen
South China Morning Post

Jerome A. Cohen says, "China can boost its 'soft power' with some Confucian-style compassion towards jailed dissidents."