On 7 August 1999, Song Yongyi, a researcher and librarian at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, was arrested in Beijing. 2 Song was visiting China to collect documents and other materials dating from the turbulent Cultural Revolution era (1966-76). He was initially accused of divulging state secrets, but was later charged with the lesser offence of purchasing and providing illegal intelligence to foreigners. In January 2000 he was unexpectedly released and allowed to return to the United States.
It is not very clear why was Song arrested. The Cultural Revolution is certainly a sensitive subject for Communist Party leaders, who still wish to protect the reputation of Mao as founder of the People's Republic and have their own secrets to guard. Perhaps Song's work on the historical documentation of this period disturbed a particular sensitivity. Or perhaps he was arrested to demonstrate to other Chinese scholars based abroad the hazards of using their insider's knowledge of China to support foreign-based research. Killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys (sha ji, gei houzi kan), or punishing one individual simply to ensure the proper behaviour of others, is often used to assist in the protection of official information in China. 3 And why was Song released, when so many other seemingly blameless individuals remain imprisoned? Perhaps the outcry in the American academic community over his treatment had some influence. It could also be that he was released as a goodwill gesture in the intricate poker game of Sino-US relations. Or it may even be that his activities were finally determined to be innocuous and his purported confession merely announced to paper over the event. I doubt these questions will ever be answered satisfactorily. Although this episode was frightening for Song Yongyi and his family, it was simply a small and hardly unusual incident in the enforcement of justice and security in China.
From a western liberal democratic perspective, much seems amiss in this system of law and administration, particularly in matters concerning freedom of expression and the free flow of information. In China, these principles are entirely overshadowed by the public order and security concerns of the Partystate. Moreover, the legal system itself is not only fragmented, inconsistent and