The Magazine

Dear Mr. President

Jun 18, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 38 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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TWO WEEKS AGO, following a long round of high-profile diplomacy, the Bush administration finally achieved what it thought an acceptable entente with the People’s Republic of China regarding the disposition of our downed EP-3 surveillance plane. The entire embarrassing incident thus safely consigned to history, America’s China-policy professionals have returned to their day jobs—an expert enterprise so exquisitely subtle that untutored civilians are very often unable to distinguish it from simple appeasement of Beijing’s Communist rulers. As, for example, on June 1, when, with the famous EP-3 still squatting on a Hainan runway, President Bush announced his intention to renew China’s favorable treatment under U.S. tariff schedules for another year. Just the way, he pointed out, "every president has done since 1980."

Bush went on to argue—again, as has every president since 1980—that vigorous trade with China is good for American "business" and "farmers" and "workers" and "consumers." And good for their Chinese counterparts, too, he urged us to believe: Bilateral commercial entanglements are indispensable "if we are to promote American values of transparency and accountability and ensure that the Chinese government adheres to the rule of law in its dealings with its own people as well as with the international community."

The president did not explain how it is, the United States having so guaranteed vigorous trade with China for more than twenty years now, that said country nevertheless remains a virtual wasteland where such "American values" are concerned. Nor did the president explain why he should feel liberated to make public his "normal trade relations" decision merely by China’s promised return of a ruined airplane. We would have expected George W. Bush, in accordance with his own stated principles, to care rather less about this piece of machinery and rather more about certain other, truly priceless American resources held captive by Beijing.

We are referring here, of course, to the fact that, for several months now, China’s fearsome Ministry of State Security has been "detaining"—and refusing to provide more than superficial information about—a half dozen U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Surely the plight of these detainees speaks as nothing better could to the abject failure of American import-export policy as a means to "ensure" Beijing’s respect for the rule of law. Surely President Bush cannot seriously hope to maintain "normal" relations with China so long as its government is openly and unapologetically conducting a terror campaign against selected visiting Americans. And surely the protection and retrieval of these Americans must be the Bush administration’s very highest China-policy priority at the moment. Surely, indeed, every other question must be deferred, every other planned démarche or initiative must be frozen in abeyance, until we get our people home.

A man named Li Shaomin is one of these people. He and the others have led roughly parallel lives. Li was born in Beijing in 1956. When he was 10, during the Cultural Revolution, his father, Li Honglin, a leading Chinese intellectual and Communist party official, was purged and exiled with his family to northeastern Hebei province. There they survived by raising ducks. And there Li Shaomin, despite being denied formal schooling, somehow managed to learn enough that his was the nation’s highest score on the 1978 Beijing University entrance exam.

At the university, Li met his wife, Liu Yingli. Upon graduation, the couple moved to the United States where both did graduate work, Li earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton and a post-doctoral fellowship from Harvard. After Boston, Li spent several years working as a senior analyst for AT&T in New Jersey. (The man who hired him, Salvatore Cordo, has organized an Internet petition drive on Li Shaomin’s behalf at the following address: We urge our readers to participate.) By then, Li’s father had been rehabilitated and returned to prominence as a top deputy of the reformist Communist party chief Hu Yaobang. But Li Honglin would again be purged, and briefly imprisoned, for his support of the "counterrevolutionary" pro-democracy movement that culminated in the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. That event, and the stateside birth of their now 9-year-old daughter, Diana, resolved Shaomin and Yingli to become U.S. citizens, a process they completed in 1995.