BEIJING — Three days before the crucial vote on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, China announced Tuesday it will put Chinese-American academic Li Shaomin on trial on spy charges.
The Foreign Ministry said Li would go before a Beijing court Saturday. It marks the first clear sign of movement on a major China-U.S. irritant raised last week by President Bush in a telephone call with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"The trial of U.S. citizen Li Shaomin will be declared open on the morning of July 14 at Beijing First Intermediate People's Court," spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told reporters.
She said the trial would not be open to the public, but a U.S. consular official and a translator would be allowed to attend the hearings, which start two weeks before a fence-mending visit to China by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On June 25, the U.S. House of Representatives, in a 379-0 vote, called on Bush to make the release of the scholars a top priority in dealings with Beijing as he prepares to visit China later this year.
The State Department issued a China travel warning to Chinese scholars and some academics have called off summer visits.
In similar cases in the past, trials have produced swift convictions followed by summary expulsions.
It was not clear whether Li's own lawyer would be able to attend his trial, the first confirmed hearing for any of the U.S.-linked Chinese academics known to be in the custody of China's secret police and accused of spying.
On Friday, the United States nudged China for a speedy resolution of its spying cases against Li and Gao Zhan, a permanent U.S. resident also accused of spying for Taiwan.
"It is our view that this is hurting them in the international arena and we hope that they want to resolve it favourably and quickly," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters.
Asked about a trial date for Gao, Zhang said she had no details. But in a remark that diplomats said indicated that China would not grant a U.S. request to observe Gao's trial, she stressed that unlike Li, "Gao Zhan is a Chinese citizen."
The United States has also pressed for the release of U.S. citizen Wu Jianmin and permanent U.S. resident Tan Guangguang, scholars detained by China on spying charges.
A U.S. consular official last visited Wu on June 26 and he "appeared to be in good health," the American embassy said.
Zhang said last week that Li and Gao, picked up by Chinese secret police in February, had both confessed to spying for Taiwan. Their spouses and university colleagues have flatly dismissed the accusations.
China has strenuously denied that the cases had anything to do with the International Olympic Committee vote in Moscow on Friday on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Games.
Beijing has been seen as the 2008 frontrunner against Toronto and Paris, but its bid has been dogged by criticism of human rights issues ranging from its occupation of Tibet to a harsh two-year crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement and media restrictions.
Last week, the U.S. network NBC quoted a Chinese source it identified as familiar with internal government deliberations as saying the academics would be released "immediately" after a verdict and allowed to return to the United States.
The network said the plan was aimed at improving China's image in the United States.
China has a history of levelling serious charges against dissidents and others and then summarily expelling them.
In January last year, after lobbying from U.S. lawmakers and academics, Beijing released U.S.-based researcher Song Yongyi, held for several months on suspicion of gathering state secrets.
China said Song, a Chinese national weeks away from getting U.S citizenship, had confessed to sending documents containing state secrets out of China. He denied having confessed.
In 1995, China sentenced human rights activist Harry Wu to 15 years in prison for spying, but released him weeks later because of U.S. pressure. Wu said he fabricated a confession for police.
The detention of the scholars is one in a list of issues that have soured U.S.-China relations since the Bush administration took office in January.
But one major impediment to improving U.S.-China relations was removed last week when the dismantled American EP-3 spy plane held on China's Hainan Island since April was flown out to the United States.
China held the 24-member EP-3 crew for 11 days after it collided with an intercepting Chinese fighter. The Chinese aircraft and pilot were lost at sea.