On July 5, 2010, the American geologist and businessman  Xue Feng (薛峰) was sentenced by the Beijing Number One Intermediate Court to eight years in prison for trafficking in state secrets, an “endangering state security” (ESS) crime. (Read Dui Hua’s July 4 statement about Dr. Xue’s case.) Xue has appealed the verdict, but if his appeal is rejected—which is likely, as successful appeals of ESS convictions are very rare—he will be sent to a prison in Beijing to begin serving his sentence. Xue has already endured a long odyssey in the clutches of China’s criminal justice system. Detained in November 2007, he was arrested in April 2008, had his trial open more than a year later (in July 2009), and then saw his sentencing delayed until this July.

If sent to prison, Xue Feng will become only the second American citizen known to Dui Hua to be incarcerated in China for endangering state security. The first, David Dong Wei (董维), a businessman convicted of espionage in closed court in April 2005, received a sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment. Dong was taken into custody in Guangzhou on September 28, 2003, while on a trade delegation, and accused of spying for Taiwan and lobbying the US government on Taiwan’s behalf. Now 58 years old, Dong has been serving his sentence in Dongguan Prison, which houses most of the foreign prisoners as well as Hong Kong and Macau residents convicted by courts in the southern province of Guangdong.

David Dong Wei: Case Background, Advocacy Efforts & Latest News

Born in Sichuan Province, Dong worked as a correspondent for a Beijing-based newspaper before moving to the United States in 1986. He became a US citizen in 1995 and continued to work in journalism, co-authoring a book, Countdown to Tiananmen: The View from the Top, which was published in 1990. He subsequently began a career in business.

After Dong’s arrest, a China Daily story from August 2004 provided an elaborate summary of his alleged spying activities. According to the piece, Dong was thought to have recruited “a huge network of Taiwanese spying in the Eastern United States”—where most of his activities were believed to have taken place—as part of ring of agents paid by Taiwan’s top intelligence agency. The article stated that he collected confidential information such as “speeches by China’s top leaders in closed-door meetings” as well as insights into political and economic conditions in China and the country’s policies towards Taiwan and the United States.

The story described large amounts of cash that switched hands, including through high-stakes “dollar diplomacy” targeting Americans. According to the piece, the Taiwanese intelligence agency gave Dong $3,000 a month, other monetary support, and a house valued at $268,000. In addition, he was said to have recruited Chinese students by granting them scholarships drawn from a $1 million fund set up by the agency, and introduced others to the agency to spy against the mainland. After Dong was implicated by others in the alleged “spy ring,” he confessed, according to the article, that he and others had worked with Taiwanese lobbyists who paid “tens of millions” of dollars to American consulting firms and foundations to seek their support for Taiwan.

Dui Hua, among others, has taken a special interest in the case of Dong Wei, whose name has appeared on lists submitted by the US government in its bilateral human rights dialogues with Beijing. He is visited regularly by officials of the American consulate in Guangzhou. In 2007, Rep. George Miller (D-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, sent a letter urging the US State Department to secure Dong’s release on humanitarian grounds. In the letter, co-signed by several members of Congress, Miller said that Dong had been hospitalized twice during pre-trial detention and once, in 2006, after his conviction. Following Miller’s intervention, Dong received a 10-month sentence reduction in April 2008.

While in prison, Dong appears to have exhibited good behavior. Dui Hua learned through a Chinese government response from November 2007 that Dong had received nine merit citations and a good behavior commendation in the previous year alone.

In the latest update on the case, reliable sources in the Chinese government informed Dui Hua in May 2010 of an 18-month sentence reduction that took effect on April 23, 2010. Dong is now due to be released on May 27, 2014. In the recent response, Chinese officials confirmed to Dui Hua that Dong is in poor health, suffering from coronary disease and hypertension.

What About Xue Feng?

Xue Feng might face a similar fate as David Dong Wei, with reductions whittling down an original, severe sentence. The climate surrounding political crimes in China may yield other clues about how Xue’s sentence will play out. In the name of “preserving stability,” Chinese courts are handing down more and stricter sentences for ESS crimes; Xue’s sentence is one in a line of convictions exemplifying this harsher stance. The Chinese government has diminished its once-convenient practice of releasing political prisoners on medical parole (see Dialogue 39), making it uncertain whether Xue, who has a heart condition, will gain clemency on health grounds.

As with some high-profile espionage cases of Hong Kong residents, Xue might be freed early by a decision not firmly rooted in law but as a result of international campaigns and public pressure. This happened with the paroles of Hong Kong journalists Ching Cheong (程翔), released in February 2008 after serving about half of his five-year sentence, and Xi Yang (席扬), who was paroled in January 1997 after serving less than one-third of a 12-year sentence. Whatever the outcome of Xue’s case, the Chinese government will likely keep up its stern approach to handling alleged ESS crimes and, as it did in Dong’s complicated case, underscore that foreign prying into matters of China’s national interest poses security hazards to all parties involved.