WASHINGTON -- A University of Maryland scholar and human rights activist was detained, interrogated and expelled from China last week while on a trip to visit her family and conduct research.
Li Xiaorong, 40, a U.S. citizen, was arrested April 3 by local Chinese police less than an hour after arriving at her parents' home in a small town in southwest Sichuan province, according to the New York-based group Human Rights in China (HRIC).
After an all-night drive to Chengdu, the provincial capital, Li was interrogated and her luggage searched by plainclothes security officers. She was then put on a plane to Hong Kong, according to the group.
She was not fed or allowed to make telephone calls. The detention lasted eight to 12 hours, said her husband, Eric Goldstein.
"This is not consistent with the way a country such as the People's Republic ought to be treating American citizens," said William Galston, Li's boss at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.
Goldstein said his wife planned to return from Hong Kong in a few days and would use her time there to pursue research. "She's fine," he said.
During her detention, authorities accused her of violating Chinese law and told her she was on a list of people barred from entering the country, HRIC said. In fact, she had entered China on a valid visa, the group said.
Chinese authorities told the State Department that Li "engaged in activities against the Chinese government," a spokesman in Washington said.
HRIC said the Sichuan public security bureau told the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and its consulate in Chengdu that she had "entered the country to engage [in] activities against the state."
Initial reaction from the State Department was mild. "We're looking into the case," said spokesman James P. Rubin. He said the latest U.S. human rights report on China notes Beijing's refusal to allow dissidents and rights activists to re-enter China.
"It's our long-standing position [that China] should allow the peaceful expression of political and religious views," he said. "Freedom of movement, too, is protected in international declarations of human rights and in human rights treaties."
A Chinese Embassy spokesman, Yu Shuning, said he had no official information about the case. But citing wire service reports, Yu said: "She was not doing what she claims, visiting family or parents."
Several dissidents have been arrested in China in recent weeks, although authorities said last week that they would allow a prominent rights activist to leave the country on medical grounds.
China specialists are divided over whether the recent arrests are a temporary phase or whether they represent a new defiance against the West. The United States and Europe recently backed away from condemning China's human rights practices in a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Conference.
For Li, human rights are an academic pursuit and an activist passion. She is a former executive director of Human Rights in China and current vice chairman of the group's board. Her husband works for Human Rights Watch, specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. She has been a consultant with that group.
In February, she introduced Wei Jingsheng, one of China's most famous activists, during a public forum at the university.
But apart from the family visit, the university said, the purpose of her trip to China was academic.
"Whatever she was doing in China was consistent both with long-standing scholarly concerns and the rule of law," Galston said.
She recently obtained grants from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the MacArthur Foundation to explore ways to improve U.S.-Chinese dialogue on human rights and to examine how "Asian values" fit or differed from universal notions of human rights.
"Asian values" is the label that some autocratic leaders in the region attach to their assertion that Western notions of human rights are incompatible with Asian traditions and culture.
After studying and teaching at the university level in China, Li entered the United States in 1987 to earn her doctorate in philosophy at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. She and Goldstein married in 1992. The next year, she was hired as a research scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park. The couple live in Takoma Park; they have a daughter, 2 1/2 , and a year-old son.
Her articles on human rights and women's issues have been published widely in scholarly journals and in HRIC publications.
"She is a distinguished scholar as well as an internationally recognized leader in the field of democratization and human rights around the world," Galston said.
In the decade since Li left China, she had returned only once before, in 1994. She met Wei during that trip, Goldstein said.
For Li, the most disturbing part of being expelled from China was that her parents and relatives were "devastated," Goldstein said.
"They saw her for an hour and then the police knocked on the door and took her away," he said.
Pub Date: 4/08/98