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China Rejects American’s Appeal of Spy Charge

February 22, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 18 Feb 2011: A Chinese court on Friday rejected an appeal by American geologist Xue Feng against his eight-year jail sentence for spying, despite a long-running campaign by Washington to free him, including a personal plea by President Obama.

The U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, decried the decision. “I’m extremely disappointed in the outcome, although it wasn’t completely unexpected,” he told reporters outside the Beijing People’s High Court. He called on the Chinese government to “consider an immediate humanitarian release of Xue Feng thereby allowing him to get back to his family and his way of life.”

China’s oil industry was undergoing a tumultuous period as Xue Feng began his career as a “scout” for Colorado-based IHS Inc. and ultimately was convicted in Beijing for stealing Chinese national secrets.

“He is a U.S. citizen and we take this case very, very seriously as we have over the last couple of years,” said Mr. Huntsman, a Republican who is due to leave his post later this year to pursue a possible presidential bid in 2012. “I can tell you now we’re not going to let it go, even after today’s decision.”

Mr. Xue’s sentencing last summer sent a chill through foreign investors in China and the people who make their money analyzing its economy. He was found guilty of obtaining and trafficking in state secrets after he unearthed information on Chinese oil wells for his former employer—U.S. petroleum research firm IHS Inc. Mr. Xue’s defense was that the information would have been regarded as normal commercial intelligence in most of the world, a view shared by independent analysts.

China doesn’t clearly define secrets but its state security apparatus makes clear a danger zone exists. Ethnic Chinese employees of foreign companies, like Mr. Xue, are the most vulnerable to prosecution since they are on the front lines of business, speak the language fluently and cultivate local contacts. Foreign companies in China have been scrambling to draft internal guidelines to protect their staff as they gather market research. Some firms say they have adjusted how they conduct economic research in China.

China’s culture of secrecy is at odds with its invitation to foreign companies to help modernize its business sector. Some foreign companies say China’s official secrecy compounds distrust of Chinese data in general. It has also hindered Chinese companies intent on pursuing international business opportunities, for instance, by road-blocking due diligence efforts that are basic to deal-making.

Mr. Xue was detained in 2007 and convicted in 2009, although he had to wait a year to be sentenced last July. In addition to the eight-year jail term, he was fined 200,000 yuan ($30,400). Mr. Obama raised his case with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to Beijing in 2009. Last month in Washington, U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says she handed Mr. Hu a letter outlining her concerns about Mr. Xue and others in Chinese prisons.

Mr. Huntsman, who has regularly visited Mr. Xue in jail, met with him again briefly after Friday’s court session. “He’s surprisingly stoic and strong,” Mr. Huntsman said. Mr. Xue’s wife and two children live in Texas.

John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco group that assists those detained in China, said in a statement that the court’s rejection of Mr. Xue’s appeal “will be greeted with dismay and concern in Washington and throughout the international business community.” High-level lobbying by Washington “appears to have counted for nothing,” he said.


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