BEIJING — China granted parole Thursday to two U.S.-based Chinese scholars convicted of spying, clearing away a diplomatic obstacle before Secretary of State Colin Powell's weekend visit.
A plane carrying one of the scholars, Gao Zhan, arrived in Detroit on Thursday, U.S. immigration officials said. China's Foreign Ministry said both Gao and the second scholar, Qin Guangguang, were granted medical parole. Qin decided to remain in China, Powell told reporters in Vietnam.
The releases came a day after a Chinese-born American business professor was deported after being convicted of spying in the same case as Gao.
Gao, a researcher at American University in Washington, was convicted Tuesday of spying for Taiwan and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Qin received the same sentence, though it wasn't clear whether their cases were connected.
Beijing has used medical parole in the past to rid itself of high-profile prisoners.
Asked about Gao's release, Powell, who was in Vietnam for a regional conference of Asian officials, said, "We are very pleased."
Powell told a news conference that China should change its legal system in a way that helps avoid the fate that Gao and others with ties to the United States have suffered.
The principal focus should not be on individual cases but on a system that "occasionally might go after people that should not be gone after," he said. "When we see circumstances and situations like that, we're going to talk about it."
The White House said Thursday that Gao's release was a positive development but that the United States still had concerns about Beijing's human rights policies.
Gao, 39, was detained Feb. 11 at the Beijing airport during a family visit to China. Her husband and their 5-year-old son were detained with her and held for 26 days before being allowed to return to the United States.
Her husband, Xue Donghua, who lives in McLean, Va., with their son, Andrew, said he was "very happy, very surprised" by the news.
"All of the sudden it happened. Yesterday was sad," he said, referring to his wife's conviction.
The incident caused an uproar in Washington because Gao's son is an American citizen and Chinese authorities failed to inform the U.S. Embassy of his detention, as required by treaty.
One of Gao's lawyers, Bai Xuebiao, said she received word at 10 p.m. on Wednesday that her client would be released.
Bai wouldn't comment on whether the release was prompted by a meeting Wednesday in Vietnam between Powell and his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan.
He said he did not know whether leaving China was a condition of Gao's parole.
The two paroles appeared to be attempts by Beijing to improve ties prior to Powell's arrival on Saturday.
"I think the relationship is on an upswing now, now that these irritations are behind us," Powell said hours before Gao's release. "I know they are anxious to move forward," he added, referring to the Beijing government.
Gao was convicted of helping Li Shaomin, an American who was convicted July 14 of spying for Taiwan. She was accused of giving sensitive materials to Li, who teaches business at the City University of Hong Kong.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since a civil war that ended in 1949. Beijing claims the island as one of its provinces, and the two sides actively spy on each other.
According to her lawyers, Gao denied spying and said that she gave Li academic materials as part of normal scholarly exchanges.
No details of Qin's case have been released.
A Hong Kong-based human rights organization said Wednesday that security agents had seized his wife's Chinese passport and U.S. residency card, preventing her from returning to the United States. The U.S. Embassy said it couldn't confirm the report by the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.