A librarian from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania went to China last summer to collect historical materials on the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and discovered that after a quarter-century, the Chinese government is still very touchy about the subject.
Song Yongyi, the Chinese-born librarian, was detained Aug. 7 by the Chinese State Security Ministry for obtaining allegedly secret documents. On Christmas Eve, the Chinese government informed Song's wife that he had been formally "arrested," making his indictment and imprisonment a near certainty.
Song's predicament is complicated because he is still a Chinese citizen, even though he had lived in the United States for 10 years, passed his citizenship tests and was due to be sworn in as an American citizen in September.
Song's defenders say the allegation that he obtained secret documents is puzzling, since the materials he was collecting had been published openly in China.
"He's our librarian and he's a national authority on the Cultural Revolution," said David Strand, a professor of Chinese studies at Dickinson. "He was trying to get as complete a collection as possible."
"We think the detention is unwarranted," added a State Department official. "We see no evidence that Mr. Song has been doing anything other than carrying on normal scholarly research," the official said, noting that high-level Clinton administration officials have urged China to free the librarian.
Song's wife, Yao Xiaohua, was detained with him in August but was released in November. In a telephone interview, she said her husband "is a scholar, so he never realized that he would be arrested. This is academic research."
Song, a former member of the youthful Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, is co-author of a bibliography published by the Harvard University Press of archives on the Cultural Revolution. He has also written a book on a 20th-century Chinese novelist, Lao She; a study called "Love in Literature"; and a recent paper about the late premier Zhou Enlai, whose role in the Cultural Revolution remains a thorny issue in China.
"The Chinese government--which opposes or seeks to prohibit independent research on the Cultural Revolution--has published around 200 to 300 new 'official' memoirs, biographies, chronicles, collected works, articles and films by and about Zhou in the Cultural Revolution," Song wrote last year in a paper for the Association of Asian Studies.
The contents of these official works, he added, "are often at variance and sometimes highly contradictory . . . making the study of Zhou and other CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leaders more complicated than ever."
Dickinson College officials, believing that Song's detention could best be resolved quietly, initially marshaled influential Americans and U.S. government officials to lobby the Chinese government for Song's release.
Since Song's formal arrest, however, the college has retained Jerome Cohen, a partner at the law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison and a leading authority on Chinese law and contracts.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also has publicly appealed for Song's release, and 1,300 students and faculty members have signed a petition protesting his arrest, which the college's president, William G. Durden, has called a violation of "internationally accepted norms for the free expression of scholarly ideas."
According to Cohen, security police initially wanted to charge Song with stealing state secrets, but, in an unusual move, the Chinese procurator's office refused, saying there was no evidence to support such an allegation. Last month, however, he was charged with "the purchase and illegal provision of intelligence to foreign people."
Dickinson College also has retained a law firm in Beijing and has asked the Chinese government to allow immediate access to Song, who still has not seen a lawyer.
Yao said she believes that she and her husband were detained by mistake, and that now the security police must find a face-saving charge.
"He's a bibliographer and if [he is jailed for] providing intelligence, then no academician is safe from the Chinese authorities," said Specter. He added that the charge against Song is "mysterious, flimsy" and comes at a time when China is seeking admission into the World Trade Organization and permanent trading privileges with the United States.
China has "a total disregard for human rights or for their commitment to improve their judicial system. While they give it lip service, they keep arresting people," he said.
The Chinese Embassy did not return calls seeking comment yesterday, and Specter said the embassy had not responded to two letters he wrote on Song's behalf.
Song was born Dec. 15, 1949, in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, his education was interrupted and he became a dockworker.
In 1971, he was jailed and labeled a counter-revolutionary for organizing a book club with four other young people interested in discussing political ideas. He spent five years in detention under harsh conditions, but after the Cultural Revolution ended, the verdict was reversed and he was cleared of all charges.
He graduated from Shanghai Normal University, became a teacher of Chinese literature and married Yao, a childhood neighbor.
In 1989, he came to the United States, where he studied at the University of Colorado, Penn State University and Indiana University. He has worked at Dickinson since 1997.
In 1995, Song had surgery for bladder cancer, and Yao said she was concerned about his health in detention.
Experts in Chinese law said one possibility is that Song will be convicted, then released for medical treatment.
CAPTION: Song Yongyi, a librarian, has been detained in China since August.