The Executive Officer’s Column
Speaking Out for Human Rights
Major media outlets have covered the situation of Dr. Gao Zhan, American University scholar, who was detained in China on February 11. Knowledge of this arrest first became public on March 22. Since that time two other situations of sociologists detained in China have come to public attention: first, the situation of Dr. Li Shaomin, who is Princeton trained and teaches at the City University of Hong Kong, and Dr. Xu Zerong of Oxford University. Dr. Li was detained on February 25, and Dr. Xu last fall. All three sociologists are dedicated to scholarly work on academic subjects that bring them to do research in China. All reports appear to confirm that they are legitimate scholars conducting scientific research. As of this writing, only Dr. Gao has subsequently been charged with spying for foreign intelligence agencies, but the Chinese government has offered no evidence to support this claim.
ASA has expressed itself in the strongest possible terms since the news of Dr. Gao first reached us in March. President Massey and I sent a letter protesting that situation (see below), and we are coordinating closely with the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as well as with the Academic Freedom Program of Human Rights Watch. We sent a second letter on April 2 in collaboration with Human Rights Watch and the New York Academy of Sciences on behalf of Drs. Gao, Li, and Xu. In monitoring this situation closely and working on it day-to-day, we are relying on the ASA’s homepage to communicate our views and keep our members informed. Therefore, between issues of Footnotes and for timely information, please check the ASA homepage at www.asanet.org.
For a scientific society like ASA, it is a fundamental value and responsibility of our body to speak out in the face of human rights violations of scholars and other infringements on the capacity of sociologists to pursue their ideas and present their work free of constraints. In speaking out, ASA has made the point that China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on October 1998, thus committing itself to strive to provide all individuals the right to be free from “arbitrary arrest or detention,” and to guarantee all the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” Essentially the ongoing detention of these scientists violates these fundamental rights.
Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) learned of the situation of Dr. Gao through a posting on its listserv (as did I). ASA is well situated to monitor these situations, and I have worked closely with SWS President and long-time ASA leader Myra Marx Ferree in providing information and sharing our steps. SWS’ leadership role has added an important voice. Dr. Gao’s work focuses on women’s roles in China and Taiwan, including a particular focus on women students who return to China after studying abroad. Thus, SWS’ stepping in is central to its mission and expertise. SWS has written a letter as well on behalf of Dr. Li.
We encourage sociologists to write individual letters expressing your concerns as part of the community of scholars. The AAAS Human Rights Action Network—known as AAASHRAN—provides briefing materials and sample letters on cases or developments where scientists’ human rights are being violated. Thus, those wishing to act or receive such updates can access AAASHRAN through the ASA homepage or directly at http://shr.aaas.org/aaashran.htm. If you take action, please send me a copy of your posting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wish I could conclude this column with some sentiment that events like those in China are quite rare. AAASHRAN reports posting one case or issue each week. Indeed, those who scan the AAASHRAN homepage now will immediately learn of attacks on March 1 and March 10 against Professor Khadija Cherif, a sociology professor at the University of Tunis in Tunisia. I can conclude by saying—indeed promising—that, whatever the frequency of such events, ASA is paying close attention, and we will continue to take action and report. Please know that you can learn about these situations from us; please also keep us posted so that we can learn from you.—Felice J. Levine
March 24, 2001
Ambassador Yang Jiechi
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
2300 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Dear Ambassador Jiechi:
On behalf of the American Sociological Association (ASA), we are writing to urge that authorities in the People’s Republic of China take immediate steps to release Dr. Gao Zhan who has been detained since February 11, 2001. Dr. Gao, a sociologist, has pursued her scientific research over the years in China. We understand that she has been confined without counsel and that members of her family have not been able to contact her. We ask that you assure her safety and well being and unconditionally release her from detention.
The American Sociological Association, the national membership organization of sociologists in the United States, is deeply concerned that Dr. Gao’s detainment was motivated by an effort to limit her work as a scientist in her field. Dr. Gao holds an appointment as a Faculty Fellow at the American University in Washington, DC, where she conducts research on women’s issues and economic reforms in China. Although she was born in China, Dr. Gao is a Permanent Resident of the United States. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Syracuse University and an M.A. in Sociology.
We would appreciate timely action to release Dr. Gao. Absent a change in these circumstances, we remain gravely concerned about the conditions under which scholarly inquiry and scientific exchange can occur in China.
Douglas S. Massey, PhD
Felice J. Levine, PhD
Cc: Secretary of State Colin Powell
Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher, Beijing
AAAS Science and Human Rights Program