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Jailed Chinese scholar overlooked in U.S.-China espionage case

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BEIJING — In the espionage case that provoked diplomatic tussles between Beijing and Washington, Qu Wei is the overlooked scholar. Without U.S. links and the protection they provide, he disappeared into China's penal system while others went free.

A family member said Friday that Qu might appeal the 13-year prison term imposed on charges that he gave secrets to scholars Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin — who were convicted by China as spies.

But Li is a U.S. citizen and Gao, a Chinese citizen, has legal residency rights in the United States. Rather than risk ruining a weekend visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell, China sent them back to the United States this week, and freed another U.S.-linked scholar also convicted of spying.

Qu, however, has only his Chinese citizenship and no Washington advocates. His detention does not threaten the success of Powell's visit, eagerly anticipated as an opportunity to repair frayed U.S.-China ties.

"They've got people protecting them," the family member said of the freed scholars. "We don't have any protection."

Fearing official reprisals for speaking publicly about Qu's imprisonment, the relative asked not to be identified by name.

Qu's case highlights the plight of prisoners who are not high on Western government lists of people they want China to release. Beijing has occasionally freed high-profile prisoners to placate Western critics and further it's diplomatic goals. But many others, off the radar screen of international attention, serve out their terms.

Activists urged Powell on Friday to press Chinese leaders to free jailed dissidents and improve human rights. Through a Hong Kong-based rights group, 35 Chinese activists appealed for the release on medical grounds of Xu Wenli, China's most prominent jailed democracy campaigner. His wife says he has hepatitis and chronic back pain.

"The Bush administration must seek concrete improvements," Amnesty International said. "The scale of China's human rights problem cannot be hidden."

It says China is holding at least 6,000 political prisoners, including pro-democracy and labor activists, Catholic priests and followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Qu, 47, met his wife in middle school. They have a child. He worked at a Chinese air force academy before transferring in the early 1990s to a government-backed association for Taiwanese sympathetic to Beijing's view that the island is a province of China.

Qu was detained in February, which is when Gao and Li also were picked up. Their U.S. links quickly put their detentions on newspaper pages. But Qu's name first became widely known Tuesday, when China's official Xinhua News Agency reported his sentence.

Qu provided photocopied book and magazine articles about Taiwan and its relations with China to Gao, a researcher at American University in Washington, her U.S. lawyer, Jerome A. Cohen, has said.

She passed the information to Li, who teaches business in Hong Kong, Cohen said. He said Gao knew that China did not want some of the materials to be widely distributed. But she also said she had no reason to know they were secret, according to Cohen.

The family member confirmed that Qu and Gao were friends, and said that "from the facts, it seems as if he did provide some materials."

The family member said she couldn't say whether the documents were sensitive. But she insisted Qu was unaware that authorities suspected Gao and Li of espionage.

"I never imagined that those who were known to be spies would be sentenced very lightly and that the person who did not know would get a very heavy sentence," she said. "I think there are problems with the facts."

Gao, who was paroled two days after a Beijing court sentenced her to 10 years in prison, told reporters upon her return to the United States that her "firm belief of my innocence" sustained her in detention.

Asked why Chinese authorities picked her up, she said, "They can do whatever they want, any time, in any manner."

"The U.S. government has done a great job in saving me," Gao said when asked what she thought would happen to Qu. "I think the American government will respond in the same fashion no matter who that person is or what kind of social status they have."