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Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

David Rowley
Xue Feng

Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding US relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust public confrontation. This approach, recommended by most influential experts on China, has been followed in political and economic dealings, and even when the human rights of American citizens are at stake. But how effective is quiet diplomacy in practice? Two cases have made this question urgent.

To judge from recent events, China itself has certainly not felt bound by the rules of quiet diplomacy. In its dispute with Japan—over the September arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler captain whose boat collided with two Japanese naval vessels in disputed maritime territory—the Chinese government went public right away with what appeared to be calculated fury. There were warnings of “strong countermeasures” and “severe consequences” for Japan if it didn’t release the ship’s captain immediately. Chinese police arrested four Japanese businessmen, allegedly for photographing an off-limits military installation—three have since been released; one is still being held. And even after the Japanese released the captain (who immediately declared his intention of going back to the disputed area), China continued to press for an apology and compensation.

Many observers argue that China’s aggressive behavior will cost it in its relations with its neighbors and with the United States over the long term. Still, for the moment, very noisy diplomacy seems to have accomplished China’s purpose—to secure the release of its detained citizen and, probably, to reassert its claims in the East China Sea. What is striking in the meantime is the contrast between Chinese behavior in a dispute involving the seizure of one of its citizens by another country and the behavior of other countries, including the United States, when China seizes one of theirs.

Take the case of Xue Feng, a naturalized American citizen who was working for an American company, IHS Energy. In 2007, he was arrested by Chinese police after he purchased a database on the Chinese oil industry through Chinese intermediaries. In July this year, after spending three years in Chinese prison, he was tried and convicted in a closed trial for “gathering intelligence” and “unlawfully sending abroad state secrets.” He has been sentenced to a further eight years in prison.

The case would seem to be of special interest to the United States: the charges are difficult to understand, there are indications that Xue was mistreated while awaiting trial, and the prosecution plainly ignored both China’s own laws and its treaty obligations. The database in question, which Xue acquired and gave to his employer, provided coordinates for the country’s oil wells—information that American geologists say is freely available in most countries and had not been designated a “state secret” at the time of Xue’s arrest.

Moreover, the US-China consular convention requires China to notify the American embassy within four days of its arrest of any American citizen—but the Chinese only carried out this notification after Xue had been in police custody for thirty-two days. China further violated the convention by banning American consular representatives from the trial. The grounds for the ban were that the trial involved “state secrets,” though in fact the consular convention itself makes no exception for such cases.

More serious still, there is persuasive evidence that Xue was tortured during the three years he was held before his trial. When he was visited by a consular official, Xue showed cigarette burns he had received in prison, and said that he was forced to sign a confession. The content of the confession is not known, but if Xue’s case followed the usual pattern in China, it would have been a central piece of evidence in the prosecution’s case against him, despite the fact that Chinese law formally bans torture and coerced confessions are technically inadmissible at trial.

By international standards, the trial was a farce,” Jerome Cohen, a specialist on Chinese law at New York University Law School who is advising the Xue family, wrote in a recent article in The South China Morning Post,

The defense was not allowed to summon witnesses. Prosecution witnesses’ pre-trial statements were simply read out in court. There was no opportunity to cross-examine secret police about Xue’s claims of torture and coercion. Nor could defense counsel question witnesses of the National State Secrets Bureau about its vague definitions of ‘secrets’ or ‘intelligence’ and why the oil database Xue had obtained for his company had not been declared protected information prior to his detention.

In the face of such harsh treatment of one of its own citizens, the response of the US government has been marginally more vigorous than it normally is in such cases. President Obama raised Xue’s imprisonment with Chinese president Hu Jintao in private when the two met last November. The American embassy in Beijing sent diplomatic notes to the Chinese protesting their violations of the consular convention. And once the trial was finished, the American ambassador, Jon Huntsman—without criticizing China for imprisoning Xue or violating the consular treaty—publicly asked the Chinese to release him in light of “the long ordeal he has suffered.” The American representative who visits Xue in prison every month is also the ambassador himself, and that is highly unusual.

Still, for the most part the Xue case has provoked no marked departures from the practice of quiet diplomacy. No public criticism of China on this matter has escaped the lips of any administration official. It has in this sense been handled much like another, very similar recent case, that of Stern Hu, an Australian citizen convicted earlier this year of bribery and stealing commercial secrets and giving them to his employer, the Australian mining company Rio Tinto. Even Congress, while threatening serious action on China’s manipulation of its currency, has been completely silent on the Xue case, and on other recent human rights cases. I called James Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to ask for his view of the Xue case, but a spokesman, seeming to illustrate the American reluctance to speak out about human rights violations in China, said the Senator declined to comment.

The question is whether more aggressive and immediate intervention by the United States in matters like that of Xue Feng would help. Perhaps there is some middle ground between quiet diplomacy as now practiced and China’s politics of bluster and threat—some presidential comment, a statement by the secretary of state, a petition signed by academic specialists on China. The main reason Xue had been in prison for a year before his case was even reported in the press was his family’s fear that calling any public attention to the matter would only worsen China’s treatment of him. The American embassy in Beijing similarly kept quiet even in the face of China’s violations of the consular convention—in large part, people familiar with the case have told me, out of deference to the Xue family’s wishes, even though Xue himself was saying that he wanted his detention to be made known publicly.

It’s hard to say for certain that the Xue family was wrong. This question is not easy in a country like China that is demonstrably prepared to jettison its own legal commitments if it feels its national interest—or just its national pride—requires it. But it’s clear that quiet diplomacy didn’t do much for Xue Feng. It might be time to rethink the whole idea.

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