(New York)-- Nearly 400 leading scholars from 14 countries as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong have signed a petition letter protesting China's ongoing detention of three of their fellow academics.

"The petition appealing the arrest of three scholars of Chinese ancestry marks a major initiative by the international China studies community -- one without recent precedent in the scale of the international response and outpouring of concern for the fate of our colleagues," said Mark Selden, Professor of Sociology and History, Binghamton University.

The open letter to Chinese President Jiang Zemin was released at a press conference in New York co-sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences Committee for Human Rights, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Sociological Association, and the Academic Freedom Committee of Human Rights Watch.

The letter's signatories, all members of the international academic community working in the field of China studies, called the detentions "a gross violation of China's Criminal Procedure Law," as well as international human rights law.

"What unites all of the signatories is a common hope our detained colleagues will be allowed home to the safety of their families and back to their offices to pursue their legitimate scholarly work - as we ourselves are free to do," said Robin Munro, research fellow at London University and one of the signatories.

The three detained scholars are:

  • Prof. Li Shaomin, a U.S. citizen teaching business at the City University of Hong Kong,
  • Dr. Gao Zhan, a permanent resident of the U.S. and a research scholar based at American University in Washington, D.C., and
  • Dr. Xu Zerong, who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University and is an associate research professor at the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

In the letter, the scholars expressed their concern about the vague reasons for the detention of their colleagues, and called on President Jiang to demonstrate China's commitment to human rights and academic freedom by either immediately releasing the scholars or by promptly affording them the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law with international standards of due process.

A copy of the letter can be found below.

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For more information, contacts:

Prof. Merle Goldman, Professor of Chinese History, Boston University, USA:

Prof. Roderick MarFarquhar, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History & Political Science; Chair, Government Department, Harvard University, USA:

Robin Munro, Senior Research Fellow, SOAS, London University:

Dr. Gilbert Rozman, Musgrave Professor of Sociology, Princeton University:

Prof. Mark Selden, Professor of Sociology and History, Binghamton University

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Letter to President Jiang Zemin follows below:

His Excellency Jiang Zemin
President, People's Republic of China
Zhongnanhai, Beijing, People's Republic of China

Your Excellency,

We, the undersigned members of the international academic community working in the field of China studies, would like to express to you our deep concern over the recent detention of three academic researchers by Chinese authorities.

Professor Li Shaomin, who teaches business at the City University of Hong Kong, was detained on February 25 during a visit to Shenzhen. At this writing, the authorities have not stated why he was detained, or where he is being held. Prof. Li, a U.S. citizen for the last six years, is a much-published sociologist whose work focuses on the issues involved in China's privatizing economy and on the impact and use of advertising in China. Li Shaomin received his Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University in 1988, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. He also worked closely with several major western corporations interested in doing business in China. He had frequently traveled between Hong Kong and Mainland China in the past.

We are also deeply concerned about the arrest of Dr. Gao Zhan, a research scholar based at American University in Washington, D.C., who was detained in China on February 11 and was arrested for "spying" for unspecified "overseas intelligence agencies." Although Chinese authorities have stated that she has confessed to these charges, to date the Chinese Government has not provided any confirming evidence. Her husband, Xue Donghua, who was also detained without charge and later released, has strenuously denied the charges. Moreover, in contravention of China's clear obligations under the Sino-US consular agreement providing for prompt access to detained nationals by their consular representatives, the couple's five-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, was detained and separated from his parents for 26 days without any notification to U.S. authorities. Dr. Gao's academic work focuses on Chinese students, especially women, who return to China after a period abroad. She has been held in total isolation and denied access to counsel.

Finally, we are seriously concerned for the safety and well-being of Dr. Xu Zerong, who was detained by PRC State Security officers in Guangzhou last October. Dr. Xu, who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University, is an associate research professor at the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and an affiliated professor at Zhongshan University. Before assuming these posts, he was a legal resident of Hong Kong, where he was active in publishing the Chinese Social Sciences Quarterly. It is not known what charges, if any, Dr. Xu may currently be facing. His family has reportedly neither been allowed to meet with him nor been informed as to where he is being held, and he has not been permitted to speak with a lawyer.

The extended solitary confinement of all three of these scholars, on the pretext that they are detained under what was intended to be the milder sanction of "supervised residence," is a gross violation of China's Criminal Procedure Law. This is recognized by Article 98 of the Ministry of Public Security's 1998 Rules on Procedures for the Handling of Criminal Cases by Public Security Organs.

Moreover, when China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October 1998, it made a commitment to strive to provide all individuals the right to be free from "arbitrary arrest or detention," and to guarantee all the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." In addition, Article 47 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China protects the freedom to engage in scientific research and artistic endeavor. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which China has ratified, stipulates (in Article 15): "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity." The ongoing detention of Li Shaomin, Gao Zhan and Xu Zerong violates the above-listed fundamental rights. Their detention will likely deter other academics, especially but by no means only those of Chinese nationality, from freely pursuing their research in and about China for fear of suffering the same treatment.

Scholarly relations have been in the forefront of the process of improving relations between China and the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of scholars have participated in both directions and have contributed significantly to China's modernization and the enhancement of understanding between China and other nations. It is therefore with dismay that we view the deterioration of the climate for academic exchange and research, as demonstrated by the detention of scholars who have returned to China merely to conduct research and engage in other normal scholarly activities.

A vibrant civil society and the free exchange of views and ideas are essential for any healthy society and especially for a country preparing to embrace the global economy. We therefore respectfully urge your government to indicate its commitment to protecting and promoting academic freedom in China, and to upholding the vital role of scholarly exchange in building international understanding and trust, either by immediately releasing the three detained social scientists, or by promptly affording them the genuine opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a court of law following international standards of due process. (These include, of course, unimpeded access by the accused to legal counsel of their choice, and also - where relevant - regular access to and by their consular representatives.)

Thank you for your consideration of these urgent and important matters. We look forward to receiving your reply.