Wed, Jul 04, 2001 - Page 1 News List

Chinese economist flees to US to escape crackdown


A maverick Chinese economist who is an outspoken critic of China's endemic corruption has fled to the US, fearing she was about to be arrested in a spreading crackdown on dissidents and scholars with ties to the West.

The economist, He Qinglian (何清漣), 44, had already been planning to leave China on June 26 for a year's sabbatical at the University of Chicago.

But, speaking by telephone Monday from a conference at American University in Washington, she said she left China instead on June 14, after security agents broke into her apartment in Shenzhen and seized documents, including invitations to academic conferences in the United States, Japan, Taiwan and Sweden.

Just two months earlier, she added, security agents had seized her cell phone and other personal effects, but not any cash or jewelry. And for the last year, ever since she was dismissed from her job as a writer for The Shenzhen Legal Daily, she said, the police had regularly followed her near her apartment building, and her phone and fax had been tapped.

Fearful of being arrested, she left her apartment on June 14 without any luggage and adhered to her usual routine -- except that instead of going to work she went to the bank, then to Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou for a flight to Beijing. She then flew to Singapore, and landed in the US on June 16.

"I was very worried that I would not be able to safely leave the country because they knew that I was going to the United States in two weeks," He said.

"I have decided to leave China for now; I don't know for how long."

In recent months China has arrested scores of dissidents, closed newspapers and fired outspoken editors in an accelerating effort to tighten control on public discourse.

And it has charged several visiting scholars with spying, including most recently a naturalized US citizen who had been teaching in Hong Kong and a permanent US resident who had been working as a researcher with American University in Washington.

Recent regulations allow the government to shut down publications that mention a broad range of subjects, including speculation on the country's coming leadership transition. Some people suggest that the government wants to avoid open debate ahead of the change.

President Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who is also general-secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, is expected to step down as leader of the party next year and to retire from the presidency in 2003. Li Peng (李鵬), the chairman of the National People's Congress, and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) are also expected to step down in 2003.

Who fills their posts will be decided at the party's 16th Congress next year.

Some people say the crackdown is motivated by a growing fear of espionage by disaffected Chinese nationals in service to the US or Taiwan.

He, educated as an economist in Shanghai, made her name by publishing a book in 1998 titled China's Pitfalls, a pessimistic evaluation of the country's economic and political system as irretrievably corrupt. Nine publishers refused to publish the book until after it had been published in Hong Kong and won the praise of Liu Ji (劉吉), an academic who is one of Jiang Zemin's closest advisers.

Its subsequent mainland edition sold an estimated 170,000 copies, and 1 million more copies were sold in pirated editions. An essay about the book in The New York Review of Books brought He to the attention of Western journalists and academics, who have since often sought her comment on the Chinese economy.

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