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China Releases Human Rights Activist Harry Wu

By Maggie Farley
Los Angeles Times
BEIJING

Harry Wu, the Chinese-American human rights activist, abruptly was ejected from China on Thursday, just hours after the Chinese had subjected him to a speedy trial and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for stealing state secrets and spying.

The Chinese decision to let Wu return to the United States - without first serving prison time - should improve tense U.S.-China relations and clear the way for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to visit China for an international women's conference in early September, analysts said.

President Clinton, who had been pushing for Wu's early release on humanitarian grounds, welcomed the Chinese action, saying it "removes an obstacle to improving relations between the United States and China."

China set Wu, 58, free on the eve of Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff's peacemaking visit here to resolve U.S.-Chinese conflicts over Taiwan, trade and Wu's case. Wu's release also removed a potent symbol for human rights activists attending next week's non-governmental women's conference outside of Beijing.

Despite the timing, China denied that its decision to let Wu go was a concession to the Americans or part of any deal with the United States. "The ruling in the Harry Wu case has nothing to do with Sino-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian said in a Thursday briefing in Beijing.

The White House also denied that Wu's release was part of a deal.

Clinton administration officials, though, had known as early as last week that Wu was about to be put on trial in Wuhan; the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had made arrangements to have a consular officer present at the proceeding.

As well as pleasing the United States, the Chinese regime's handling of Wu's case was designed for domestic consumption: The verdict and expulsion seemed to accommodate both the hard-line factions here, who regarded the Chinese-born Wu as the ultimate traitor for his exposes on China's gulag system, and more moderate forces in Beijing, who were anxious to see Wu's controversial case quickly resolved.

After receiving almost no attention here since he was detained June 19 while trying to enter China at a remote border post to continue his efforts to surreptitiously document China's prison labor system, Wu's case dominated Chinese news on Thursday. A series of reports from the government-run New China News Agency detailed Wu's "despicable tricks" designed to "slander, attack and oppose China," and quoted a confession Wu had submitted to the court.

"After thinking carefully and self-examination, I have sincerely drawn the conclusion that the following facts show that I have damaged the interests of the Chinese government and the Chinese people directly or indirectly and that I have violated Chinese laws," the news service quoted Wu as saying in a letter he had written to the court before his trial.

Some of the descriptions in that publicized confession - such as Wu saying he had impersonated a policeman and illegally filmed in labor camps for foreign documentaries - were strikingly similar to passages in Wu's memoirs about the 19 years he spent as a political prisoner in the Chinese gulags and statements he has made in his campaign to expose them.

China's state television broadcast scenes from Wu's four-hour Wednesday morning trial, showing a solemn Wu bracing himself in a wooden docket, head bowed, listening to the proceedings, then limping out of the courtroom with his hands in shackles after receiving his 15-year sentence.

But while most of China was watching images of Harry Wu, convicted criminal, hobbling back to prison, he was actually on a flight heading back to San Francisco as a free man.

In California, at his home in Milpitas where supporters had tied symbolic yellow ribbons on tree branches after his arrest, Wu's wife, Ching-lee, told reporters she was delighted with the news that her husband would be home soon.

"I am too happy to really tell my feelings," she said.

She had lobbied international leaders hard to pressure the Chinese government to free her husband and had urged Hillary Clinton to boycott the international women's conference as long as Wu was detained.