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China vs. Song Yongyi

Why did China jail the Dickinson College librarian?

Sunday, January 23, 2000

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CARLISLE - As a young man in China during the Cultural Revolution, Song Yongyi tried to start a book club and paid for it with a five-year prison term and beatings.

Now, at age 50, the Dickinson College librarian is again languishing in a Chinese jail as a result of the Cultural Revolution, this time for trying to study it.

Song, an authority on the brutal Maoist decade from 1966 to 1976, went to China in July to resume his scholarly hunt for old newspapers and other documents from the period. But on this latest trip, he was confronted by Chinese security agents, who hustled him out of his Beijing hotel Aug. 7 and eventually charged him with "the purchase and illegal provision of intelligence to foreigners."

The arrest has placed him at the center of what is becoming one of the highest profile human rights disputes ever between the United States and China, one that Western scholars say could jeopardize academic exchanges that both countries have carefully built up over a generation.

Song's confinement has attracted the attention of Congress. And it has baffled Western scholars of China, who say what Song was collecting were hardly state secrets.

On campus, several theories are being floated to explain other reasons for the arrest - from recent tensions between the two countries to a possible desire by some Communist leaders to discourage critical analysis of China's sensitive past.

"It's my worry that Mr. Song may have become, in a sense, a scapegoat for something else going on that we don't understand," said William Kirby, a China scholar at Harvard University and director of its Asia center. "We're dealing here with a very reputable man."

In recent days, Kirby and 100 other China scholars from the United States, Europe and Australia sent a letter to Chinese President Jiang Zemin requesting Song's release. An electronic petition posted on the Internet by the college now has roughly 4,000 signatures.

International challenge

"It's not just Dickinson's issue," said William G. Durden, president of the college. "This is an international challenge to just about every conceivable civilized norm of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. We just don't understand this.

"There is the obvious part of your mind that thinks of him sitting in that cell that you do not escape from on a daily basis," he added. "And that is troubling."

A big shouldered man with a booming voice and a fondness for martial arts action films, Song has written books and articles on China, its culture and history. He went to Dickinson in 1997 from the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked for two years as a bibliographer in the East Asian Library.

The family lived at the time in Squirrel Hill. His daughter, Michelle, 18, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, keeps a color snapshot of her father on a bookshelf in her dorm room. She said the worst part is simply not knowing his fate.

"What kind of treatment is he getting? How could he spend his days, all 24 hours, by himself? I don't even know if he's allowed to have books," she said. "Sometimes when I'm alone it's terrible. I really want our lives to be normal again."

At Dickinson, Song is regarded as a driven researcher who would complete his shift on the library's main floor, then retreat to his office nearby for an evening of reading.

Complicating Song's case is the fact that although he is a permanent U.S. resident and had completed the requirements for citizenship, he had not taken a formal oath. He had planned to do so in September, upon his return from China.

If Song was a citizen, the State Department would be in a stronger position to insist on being able to see him while he's being detained.

Song made trips to China in 1996 and 1998 without problems, and this year's trip started out no differently. But things took a frightening turn Aug. 7 when Song left his hotel room to say goodbye to some acquaintances in the lobby and did not return, said his wife Helen Yao, who was with her husband that night.

She, too, was whisked away by security agents and put in a jail separate from her husband. She was interrogated repeatedly about her husband's itinerary and the information he was collecting, and she told them that they were making a mistake, that what they considered to be classified records had in fact already been published decades ago.

"He's done nothing wrong," she said.

A wrenching goodbye

Before she was released Nov. 16, Yao was permitted to visit briefly with her husband. The two exchanged wrenching goodbyes in front of guards.

"I told my husband. 'Don't worry. I will spend my whole life to help you.' He gave me a hug," Yao said. "Inside, he is very strong. He never cries, and I saw his tears."

Yao is now helping to orchestrate a campaign for her husband's release. She expressed concern for his health, noting that he has bladder cancer and must be examined regularly. His complexion seemed puffy and he complained of chest pains when she saw him.

In Washington, D.C., Chinese Embassy spokesman Yu Shuning said he was limited in what he could say about the case, but he repeated the general allegations against Song. He said the investigation was proceeding in accordance with China's laws.

"Foreigners cannot interfere with the proceedings of the judicial system," he said. "This activity [Song] engaged in is providing intelligence to foreigners. Certainly, he got some old publications, but there are some other things which are not supposed to be purchased and provided to foreigners," he said, declining to elaborate.

A State Department official said that to the best of the agency's knowledge Song was pursuing legitimate research.

At a news conference Friday, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he will introduce measures in the Senate that would grant Song immediate citizenship and urge the Chinese government to release him.

Song was born and raised in Shanghai. In 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, his interest in a book club led to his being branded a "counter-revolutionary." He was sent to prison for five years and endured beatings to the head so severe they left him permanently scarred, colleagues said.

Song was exonerated of all charges after the revolution and released.

In 1981, he graduated from Shanghai Normal University and for a time taught Chinese literature and held jobs as a researcher and critic.

He came to the United States in 1989 and received a master's degree in Oriental literature from the University of Colorado in 1992 and a master's in library and information science from Indiana University in 1995.

Among Song's latest publications are a pair of books he co-wrote - "The Cultural Revolution: A Bibliography, 1966-1996"; and "Heterodox Thought During the Cultural Revolution."

A turbulent period

Song's research specialty involves one of the most sensitive periods in Communist China's past. Under Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, schools were closed, millions of citizens were persecuted or killed and his young, radical Red Guard supporters became a potent weapon to lash out against capitalist ideals.

During the decade, speeches by leaders and many other government documents that would normally be kept from public view found their way into print in the newspapers published by various Red Guard groups.

Today, those documents and others are hotly pursued by scholars trying to understand the period. Dickinson officials say that's what Song was doing last summer.

David Strand, a China expert and campus colleague, said he believed Song "is hoping to shape the field of Cultural Revolution studies by providing the documents that make a difference."

"He was a witness and participant in one of China's most turbulent periods," Strand said. "He wants to explain it."

Dickinson said it had given Song several study grants to further his hunt for Red Guard publications and to make a presentation last summer to a conference in China supported by the Ford Foundation.

The college released a list of nearly a dozen other funding sources for his research during the past 10 years, including Chinese University in Hong Kong, Harvard University and the University of Pittsburgh.

The school says many other scholars routinely perform the kind of work that Song was doing without interference from the government.

Administrators said they were puzzled by recent statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry regarding Song's work. They aren't sure whether to take them literally or attribute them to confusion over how to translate the Chinese statements into English.

One suggests that Song is being paid by foreigners to gather information.

"Of course Yongyi's scholarly work was sponsored by an overseas institution. He is openly employed by one," said Neil Weissman, the college's academic dean.

Another suggests Song "was accepting bribes" from foreigners to get the information.

"If the Chinese are saying that receiving grants in the academic community to pursue research is a bribe, we are at a serious new low in international understanding of the pursuit of truth," said Durden, the college's president. "If bribes are grants - and I can only make that assumption reading the text - that is truly alarming."

If Song's arrest points to the hazards of research in some parts of the world, then the message is hitting especially hard at Dickinson, a liberal arts campus whose focus on international study is as obvious as the parking signs in Italian, German, Spanish and French and the foreign flags draped from buildings. Half the school's 2,000 students experience overseas work by the time they graduate, and in recent weeks, many of them have rallied or signed petitions in hopes of bringing a member of their community home.

In the lobby of the campus library, beneath a clock showing the time in Beijing, Satsuki Swisher decided to deal with her own feelings of helplessness by creating a hopeful display for her co-worker.

Every day, she turns a sheet of yellow paper into the shape of a crane - a symbol of happiness in Japan - and hangs it from a small tree. When she started the display she didn't figure she'd run out of branches, but by last week the number of origami figures numbered 165, creating an increasingly beautiful image for every grim day of captivity.

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