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Bush asks China for 'fair treatment' of detainees

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush called Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Thursday and raised concerns about the detention of U.S.-based academics and appealed for "fair treatment," the White House said.

Meanwhile, the State Department said Beijing had informed the United States that trials had begun for two of the detainees.

Four U.S.-based academics who are either U.S. citizens or have permanent residency status are being held in China for alleged espionage.

The State Department has described the allegations as dubious at best, and China's critics suggest the detentions are part of a crackdown on dissent in advance of next year's leadership changes.

A White House official said Bush brought up the detentions but said that was not the genesis of the call.

"The administration continues to press for fair treatment," the official said. Asked to characterize the response of the Chinese leader, the U.S. official said he had no information.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said China confirmed trials were under way for Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin.

He said the United States has been unable to obtain permission for a consular officer from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to observe the trial. "So it's an open question as to whether one will be able to say that they got a fair trial or not, particularly given what we know about the Chinese legal system," Boucher said.

China's critics in Congress have urged Bush to be more forceful in pressing the cases of the four detainees.

The administration says it is taking all available diplomatic steps but that the frustration over those cases would not affect the president's support for continuing favorable trade relations with China, nor his plans to travel to China later this year, first for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai and then to Beijing for bilateral talks with Jiang.

In the phone conversation, Bush also "reinforced the importance of building constructive bilateral relations" and told Jiang he was looking forward to his October visit to Shanghai and Beijing.

The EP-3 surveillance plane standoff was not discussed in the conversation, a White House official said. The official said Bush raised "areas of cooperation and disagreement and the need for frank and honest dialogue."

Boucher said that while the United States was interested in "having a constructive relationship with China," efforts to get China to cooperate on matters related to non-proliferation or trade have been easier than getting China to adopt international human rights standards.

The news of the trials came as the State Department issued a statement Thursday saying it was "deeply disturbed" by reports China has intensified its "harsh repression" of Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual group China deems an evil cult.

"Reports of violence and torture against these Falun Gong practitioners at the hand of Chinese authorities are chilling," Boucher said, adding the Chinese government should not incarcerate followers in "re-education" labor camps and should allow access to the International Red Cross "to look into the treatment prisoners receive."

"We call on China to respect freedom of thought, conscience and religion ... and to end the cycle of repression on the Falun Gong," Boucher said.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

• HRIC Press Release -- 20 March 2001
• Chinese Foreign Ministry

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