An american geologist held and tortured by China's state-security agents was sentenced to eight years in prison yesterday for gathering data on the Chinese oil industry in a case that highlights the government's use of vague secrets laws to restrict business information.
In pronouncing Xue Feng guilty of spying and collecting state secrets, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said his actions "endangered our country's national security".
Its verdict said Xue received documents on geological conditions of on-shore oil wells and a database that gave the co-ordinates of more than 30,000 oil and gas wells belonging to China National Petroleum Corporation and its listed subsidiary, PetroChina Ltd. That information, it said, was sold to IHS Energy, the US consultancy Xue worked for.
The sentence of eight years is close to the recommended legal limit of 10 for all but extremely serious violations. Though Xue – now 45 and known as a meticulous, driven researcher, showed no emotion when the court announced the verdict, it stunned his lawyer and his sister, his only family member allowed in the courtroom.
"I can't describe how I feel. It's definitely unacceptable," Xue's wife, Nan Kang, said by telephone, sobbing, from their home in a Houston, Texas, suburb where she lives with their two children.
The US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, attended the hearing to mark Washington's interest in the case. He left without commenting and the US Embassy issued a statement calling for Xue's immediate release and deportation to the United States.
Xue's sentence punctuates a case that has dragged on for more than two-and-a-half years. Chinese officials have wide authority to classify information as state secrets. Draft regulations released by the government in April said business secrets of major state companies qualify as state secrets. "This is a very harsh sentence," said John Kamm, an American human-rights campaigner. "It's a huge disappointment and will send very real shivers up the spines of businesses that do business in China."
Agents from China's internal security agency detained Xue in November 2007 and tortured him, stubbing lit cigarettes into his arms in the early days of his detention.
The geologist David Rowley, Xue's thesis adviser at the University of Chicago, said that the location and seismic and other data of oil wells is commonly available and could not compromise Chinese security since the government controls access. "What frightens me most about this is that Xue Feng is, in my experience, a straight-up individual," Rowley said. "That's IHS's business: acquiring and redistributing data."