According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Gao Zhan has “openly confessed her crimes.” And you’ll have to take their word for it because they’re not telling what those crimes are. Gao, a sociologist at American University in Washington who studies women’s roles in China and Taiwan, has become the most recent scholar permanently residing in the United States and nearing American citizenship to be detained while on a trip to China.

In 1999, Song Yongyi, a librarian at Dickinson College, was detained for over five months and charged with “providing confidential materials to foreigners” while researching the Cultural Revolution.

In 1998, Hua Di, a nuclear missile expert at Stanford, was lured to China with promises of security and then promptly arrested. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for disclosing state secrets in academic publications.

And now it’s Gao. About six weeks ago she, her husband and their five-year-old son were trying to return to America from a three-week visit with relatives. She and her husband, Xue Donghua, are both permanent residents of the United States and are in the final stages of acquiring American citizenship; their son Andrew Xue is an American citizen.

The three of them were in the Beijing airport waiting to catch their flight home when they were arrested.

Gao and Xue were held in isolation and not allowed to see one another. Andrew was held in a government nursery, despite Xue’s demands he be allowed to stay with Gao, himself or at least his grandparents (all of whom live in Beijing). Although Xue told the authorities his son was an American citizen, they refused to follow a bilateral accord under which they must notify the American Embassy within four days if an American citizen is detained.

Xue was told he could see his son “if I told them more unfavorable stories about my wife.”

After 26 days, Xue and his son were reunited and allowed to leave the country. Gao is still being held.

Her friends in the United States are puzzled, noting that nothing in her work is particularly threatening to the Chinese regime. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims she has confessed, although it won’t say to what. The New York Times notes, “Police here routinely require confessions, even when detainees are to be released without charges.” Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen, in Washington D.C. to meet with President George W. Bush and other administration leaders, said Gao “may have not been aware that she violated our law.”

Bush pushed for her release during his meeting with Qian, as did Secretary of State Colin Powell, who called Beijing’s treatment of Andrew “particularly outrageous.”

The Bush Administration should take this opportunity to raise not merely the right of American scholars to work in China free of harassment but also the issue of human rights in China in general. China is drawing increasing international condemnation for its use of police psychiatric hospitals called Ankangs — literally “peace and happiness.”

Falun Gong members and other political dissidents have repeatedly been imprisoned in Ankangs, where they have been isolated, drugged, physically restrained and given electric shocks. Ankangs are specifically built to house “political maniacs,” meaning anyone who expresses views opposed to the regime.

The United States should use the occasion of the abuse of the rights of its citizens and residents to step up its criticism of China’s abuse of its own people. We must not allow China’s economic liberalization to blind us to its political regression.

Washington must make it very clear to Beijing that China’s continued acceptance into the highest levels of the international community requires a significant step forward on human rights. As long as foreign visitors and its own citizens alike fear indefinite detention and political persecution, China’s international voice must continue to be discounted. The international culture must not tolerate the tactics of the Cultural Revolution.

Josh Chafetz is a senior in Berkeley College. His columns appear on alternate Mondays.