China announced that Harry Wu had been expelled from the country in a terse, one-sentence report on the Xinhua news agency in the middle of the night.
The decision to show leniency to the Chinese-American human rights campaigner after he was sentenced to 15 years in jail removes one of the points of friction between Peking and Washington before the arrival in Peking today of the US Under-Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff. He will meet Chinese officials in an attempt to repair bilateral relations which collapsed in June when the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui, was permitted to visit America.
It will probably not be clear until the weekend whether the US administration has offered any quid pro quo. It is unlikely that Washington will yield to Peking's demand that it categorically rules out any future visits by President Lee. One possibility is that Mr Tarnoff will extend an invitation from President Bill Clinton to his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, for a summit in Washington later this year.
In expelling Mr Wu without delay, Peking may simply have decided that his continuing detention would overshadow the forthcoming Fourth World Conference on Women and the parallel non-governmental forum, which starts next week in Peking. Mr Wu's expulsion also would remove the most obvious focus for delegates who may be considering staging public demonstrations. The probable participation of Hillary Clinton also be presented as a diplomatic coup.
Mr Wu's sentence was delivered yesterday morning by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court in central Hubei province. The case had been heard in closed session on Wednesday, with an American consular official, Daniel Piccuta, allowed to attend. Xinhua said Mr Wu had signed a confession and been convicted of spying, posing as a government worker and "illegally obtaining, buying and providing state secrets". Mr Wu, who spent 19 years in China's labour camps before leaving for America in 1985, was detained on 19 June when trying to enter China from Kazakhstan.
Last night's television news showed pictures of Mr Wu in court. In some shots he was seated and spoke impassively; in others he stood with his head lowered, looking distressed. Xinhua said the court reached its judgment "after considering the facts ... his admission of guilt, and his having been used by others". Having used Mr Wu for this high-profile exercise in propaganda, it remains to be seen how the Chinese government will explain to its people why the naturalised American received such lenient treatment.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, said the timing of Mr Wu's deportation would have "nothing to do with diplomatic talks between China and the United States". Asked about the coincidence that the verdict has come just before the women's conference, Mr Chen said: "I think that there is no relation, because, as you know, Mr Wu Hongda is a gentleman and the conference is on women."
Mr Chen said Mr Tarnoff's meetings with Chinese officials in Peking would concentrate on "removing the serious consequences" of President Lee's visit. Mr Tarnoff was due to arrive in Shanghai last night, and will travel on to Peking today.
Since emigrating to the US, Mr Wu has dedicated his life to exposing the workings of China's labour camp system, and other human rights abuses. On several occasions he has entered China and secretly filmed prisons, most recently when he helped the BBC research two documentaries. In a video released last month, Mr Wu was shown under questioning admitting that the BBC films had contained factual inaccuracies which he blamed on the film-maker.
News analysis, page 13