By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; 9:38 PM
SHANGHAI -- An American geologist jailed for the past 2 1/2 years was sentenced Monday to eight years in prison for stealing state secrets, in a case that underscored how the Chinese government will use the legal system to protect the business interests and competitive edge of its state-run firms.
Xue Feng, 44, a naturalized American who works for a U.S. energy consulting firm, was charged with trying to buy a database that reportedly showed the location and condition of oil and wells belonging to China's government-owned National Petroleum Corp.
In other countries, such information would normally not be considered particularly sensitive. But China in recent years has shown an increasing willingness to use its catchall state secrecy laws -- usually invoked in matters of national security -- to protect what it considers the trade secrets of its state-run companies, particularly in the all-important energy sector. In March, Stern Hu, an Australian working for the mining firm Rio Tinto, was convicted in Shanghai of stealing commercial secrets and bribery relating to China's iron ore purchases; Hu received a 10-year sentence.
Xue, who was arrested in November 2007, had said he was tortured while in detention, including being burned on his arms with cigarettes and bashed in the head. His case had attracted high-level U.S. attention, with President Obama raising his concerns when he visited China last year. The case was a test of the administration's "quiet diplomacy" approach of bringing up human rights issues in China.
Unlike Hu's case, however, Xue's was kept deliberately low-profile, apparently partly out of respect for Xue's family in Texas, who feared that making him a public figure could further antagonize China's leaders.
In an unusual public display of concern, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman attended the court session Monday in Beijing. Afterward, Huntsman said in a statement that the U.S. government was "dismayed" by the verdict, and he asked that Xue be given a "humanitarian release" and deported to the United States.
Three Chinese associates of Xue's were also convicted. One received the same sentence as Xue, eight years in prison and a fine equal to about $30,000. Two others received lesser sentences of 2 1/2 years in prison and smaller fines.
After the verdict, Xue's sister, Xue Min, who was in the courtroom, was interviewed on BBC television saying that her brother was "beyond feeling angry" and that he had told her not to worry about him.
His attorney, Tong Wei, called the verdict "as bad as I thought it could be" and "the worst possible outcome." He said Xue might appeal.