Zhao Yan, The Times, and U.S. Opinion on China

Without wading into the facts surrounding the case of Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher for The New York Times who has been locked up for two years over allegations that he leaked state secrets to the newspaper, let’s take a look at how jailing a New York Times journalist might affect U.S. opinion on China.

The Times tends to cover the trevails of its journalists with a practicedly detached tone, but an underlying indignance. We saw it during the downfall of Judy Miller. And we see it here with the much more sympathetic case of Zhao Yan. Jim Yardley writes today:

A Chinese researcher for The New York Times who has been jailed for nearly two years on charges of leaking state secrets to the newspaper may learn the verdict in his case as soon as Friday, according to one of his lawyers.

“It is very likely that they are going to announce a verdict, but there is nothing definite,” the lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said Monday.

The researcher, Zhao Yan, has denied the accusations against him, and The Times has repeatedly denied that he leaked any state secrets to the newspaper. Mr. Zhao, 44, has also said he is innocent of a second, lesser charge of fraud not related to his work for The Times.

In June, Mr. Zhao had a secret trial in which defense witnesses were forbidden from testifying. Without explanation, the authorities have delayed the issuing of a verdict.

The Times has committedly covered the case, and to the extent that it might be viewed as a shaper of U.S. news coverage and opinion, the importance of Zhao’s case has been heightened.

Even the Chinese government tacitly acknowledged the importance of the Zhao case to U.S.-China relations: the charges against him were dropped for a brief period surrounding President Hu Jintao‘s visit to the United States earlier this year. Despite much speculation about a possible release, charges were later reinstated. According to a May 15 Voice of America transcript Mo Shaoping noted that “There is no regulation in Chinese law that provides for another appeal. So, if they do not have any new evidence and they make another appeal on Zhao Yan’s case, it is illegal.”

President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others brought up the Zhao case directly with Chinese authorities. I wonder if this would have happened for an AP stringer, or even a Los Angeles Times researcher. It is not far-fetched to imagine that the special status of the Times and its decision to sustain coverage of the affair elevated Zhao’s case over others. But are U.S. readers paying attention? The involvement of high government officials surrounding Hu’s visit certainly brought the case to the attention of the foreign policy elite, but otherwise this is likely another case of enraptured navelgazing on the part of U.S. journalists. Who really gave a damn what happened to Judy Miller, after all?

UPDATE 2006.08.24 22:23 EDT: Zhao has been sentenced to three years in prison, Reuters reports.

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