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Sentences a blow for U.S.-China relations

Gao may still be released on medical grounds
Gao may still be released on medical grounds  

By CNN's Willy Lam
Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- Sino-U.S. relations have been dealt a blow by the unexpectedly heavy sentences slapped on scholars Gao Zhan and Qin Quangguang, both U.S. residents.

Gao's detention since February, in particular, aroused widespread indignation in the U.S. Congress.

However, diplomatic analysts in Beijing said Chinese President Jiang Zemin was still eager to improve ties.

There was also hope the cases of Gao and at least three other U.S.-based Chinese scholars held in China might be resolved before the October visit of President George W. Bush, they said.

The analysts believe the Chinese leadership decided to set an example of severity with Gao and Qin with their ten-year sentences even though it acted leniently in the related case of Professor Li Shaomin, a U.S. citizen.

Li was also convicted of spying for Taiwan and was expelled from China. He is yet to be deported.

Hard-line pose

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A Chinese professor close to China's foreign policy departments said the leadership wanted to strike a hard-line pose ahead of a visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Jiang has decided to be tough on Gao and other Chinese-American scholars partly to parry criticism from hardliners that his administration has been too soft on Americans," the source said.

The Chinese leadership also wanted to issue a warning to Taipei, the analyst added.

Beijing claims espionage in China has intensified, allegedly perpetrated by Taiwanese or Chinese-American businessmen and scholars.

The source said Beijing had reason to be tough on Taiwan since cross-Straits relations would be a major item on the agenda of Powell's discussions with senior Chinese officials.

Face-saving formula

Gao's Beijing and U.S. lawyers, Bai Xuebiao and Jerome Cohen respectively, have indicated they will apply for her medical parole in view of her heart ailment.

Frank Lu, head of a Hong Kong human rights watchdog who had been following Gao's case, said granting medical parole to her could be a face-saving formula for all sides.

However, Lu said given the complicated nature of Chinese judicial and prison regulations, it was most unlikely that the parole could be granted before Powell's visit.

A party source in Beijing said depending on how well the talks between Powell and his hosts went, it was possible the Chinese leadership would make a private commitment to Powell to parole Gao and possibly Qin later in the year.

Three nos policy

The source said Jiang desperately wanted Powell and Bush to go back to former U.S. president Bill Clinton's position on Taiwan.

Clinton had in 1998 articulated the so-called 'three nos policy': no to Taiwan independence; no to one China, one Taiwan; and no to Taiwan joining international organizations that require statehood as a condition for membership.

Bush, on the other hand, has refused to abide by Clinton's policy.

The U.S. president has also given up the policy of "strategic ambiguity" observed by Clinton and other previous U.S. leaders regarding the deployment of American forces to defend Taiwan against a mainland attack.

Economic cooperation

The source said that even if nothing significant on Taiwan was achieved during Powell's visit, Beijing might still release Gao ahead of Bush's October visit.

Such a release would likely be measured against progress on economic cooperation and other bilateral issues.

"Improving ties with the U.S. is still a key foundation of Jiang's foreign policy and a successful October summit will work wonders for his domestic prestige," the source said.

It is believed that after signing a friendship treaty with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week, Jiang will work on ways to boost ties with the U.S. after his return to Beijing later this week.

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