New York Times Reports on Current Status of Detained Researcher Zhao Yan

December 10, 2005

According to an August 31 New York Times article, arrested Times researcher Zhao Yan is forbidden from seeing his family, has lost 22 pounds, and has requested a biopsy because of concern for lumps on his skin. The Ministry of State Security (MSS) not only denied the biopsy request, but also has denied Zhao's lawyer's efforts to post bail. The Times commented: "But even as China's authoritarian leaders now promise a more impartial legal system to their citizens and the multinational corporations that do business here, they continue to use the loosely defined state secrets law to single out political enemies and prevent journalists from prying into the inner workings of the top leadership of the ruling Communist Party."

The New York Times report raises two other concerns about how Chinese authorities are conducting their investigation. First, the authorities may have collected evidence in the case in a way that violates Chinese law. Jerome A. Cohen, an expert in China's legal system at New York University Law School whom the New York Times has retained to assist with Zhao's defense, described an MSS report as saying that the key evidence against Zhao is a photocopy of a note Zhao wrote about political maneuvering between former President Jiang Zemin and his successor, Hu Jintao. The Times said that the original note is stored in its Beijing office, and that "[this raises] questions about whether state security agents induced a Chinese employee of the office to provide a copy without authorization or conducted a search without permission." Under Article 111 of the Criminal Procedure Law: "When a search is to be conducted, a search warrant must be shown to the person to be searched." Exceptions are allowed only in "emergencies."

Second, the Chinese government has frequently used vague and overbroad state secrets laws to silence a writer or journalist. According to the Times, Yu Ping, a research fellow at New York University Law School and an expert on China's state secrets laws, has noted that under those laws, some materials available in bookstores could be classified as state secrets. Yu said he believed that many Chinese officials initially denied the spread of SARS in 2003 because revealing such an outbreak would have constituted revealing a state secret. The Times quoted Yu as saying: "Nobody is safe if the system stays this way."

See below for additional background on Zhao's case.

Chinese authorities have held Zhao for almost a year without a court hearing. Agents from China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) detained him on September 17, 2004, and authorities formally arrested him in October for "providing state secrets to foreigners." In June 2005, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that on May 20 authorities had transferred his case to the Beijing procuratorate for prosecution for both providing state secrets to foreigners and fraud (authorities had already extended Zhao's pre-trial detention to the maximum seven months by invoking several legal exceptions, and the addition of a new charge allowed them to extend his period of "legal" pre-trial detention even longer). On July 9, prosecutors returned the case to the MSS for another month of investigation. The MSS recommended to the procuratorate that Zhao be indicted, noting that, as he has neither confessed nor been cooperative, he should be given a harsher sentence.

Zhao was once a police officer in his hometown, Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province.

In 2002, Zhao joined China Reform Magazine and became one of a trio of writers known for aggressive reporting on rural issues. He also began advising farmers about drafting legal documents or petitioning officials in Beijing.

By 2003, Zhao was instructing farmers on organizing recall movements against corrupt officials. He also helped prepare a lawsuitagainst China's cabinet.

By 2001, he had been detained and questioned at least once. State Security assigned agents to watch him or meet him for occasional dinners to question him about his activities.

By early 2004, China Reform was under pressure to tone down its aggressive reporting. Mr. Zhao's friends say he quit before he could be fired. But he had become too controversial to be hired by a Chinese publication. He was also becoming desperate for income. His daughter was entering college, and he had just bought an apartment in Beijing.

Zhao joined the New York Times in April 2004, and in May began researching articles on rural issues.

On September 7, 2005, the New York Times published an article stating that Jiang had offered to resign his position as head of the Central Military Commission (Jiang retired on September 19). Two months earlier Zhao had told Kahn that Jiang had rejected two of Hu's candidates for promotion on the Central Military Commission, and Kahn included that information in the article.

Within a week of the article's publication, Zhao told Kahn that he had heard that he was the chief target of an investigation that Hu Jintao had ordered into how the New York Times go the information about Jiang's retirement. A person with a well-placed source in the government said that the source confirmed the existence of a "high level" investigation, but could not confirm any linkage to Hu.

According to Kahn, Zhao disappeared after asking if he could take a few days off work until the investigation calmed down, saying he would turn off his cell phone (Zhao told friends that state security agents tracked his movements through surveillance of his phone).

On September 17, three agents from China's Ministry of State Security picked Zhao up at a restaurant in Shanghai, shortly after he turned on his cell phone.