Geologist reflects on life behind bars in China

first_img Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Email When Xue Feng landed his first job after academia as a petroleum consultant in 2000, he was delighted. His new employer, Englewood, Colorado–based IHS, had high ambitions for the young geologist: overhaul how the company—a corporate intelligence firm—gathered oil and gas data on China. Feng dove into his assignment with gusto—so much so that in 2005, when he was 40 years old, he suffered a mild heart attack. By then, he had snared a rare, unclassified database of 30,000 oil wells in China from a private broker. The database promised substantial profits for IHS and—in a country that tightly guards such data on national security grounds—substantial risks.Disaster struck on 20 November 2007. Feng, who had just left IHS for Houston, Texas–based C&C Reservoirs, was on a business trip in Beijing when he was abducted from his hotel room. Chinese security personnel interrogated him and charged Feng, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, with selling state secrets. His chief crime: arranging for IHS’s purchase of the oil well database, which the Chinese government declared a state secret in 2007. In 2010, Feng was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison, including the nearly 3 years he had already spent in detention.Back in the United States, Feng’s former Ph.D. adviser, University of Chicago geologist David Rowley, campaigned for his early release. Rowley met with U.S. embassy staff in Beijing and spurred prominent activists to petition both governments. But even U.S. President Barack Obama’s personal request to Chinese leaders in 2009 wasn’t enough. Feng was finally released in April—10 months before his sentence was set to expire—and immediately deported to the United States, where he rejoined his wife and two children in Houston. Feng spoke with Science about his time in prison and what other researchers working abroad might glean from his experiences. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. 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Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Q: Your work at IHS involved gathering a lot of sensitive data for clients. Were you ever worried about the risks involved?A: Honestly speaking, I did not worry. I was doing honorable work in bridging the international oil industry with a country that needed investment and in helping my firm revamp its products. The profession of geologist seemed the safest in the world.By connecting dots in hindsight, I realize it’s possible that the corporate executives might have known all along that [such work] carries security risks but chose not to disclose [them]. Was I misled about the potential danger working for IHS? Now I feel I was. It was the responsibility of the corporate executives, lawyers, and human resources people to worry about the sort of risks that they imposed on their employees. (IHS had no comment in response to questions from Science.)Q: What happened on 20 November 2007?A: At 12 o’clock that night, somebody knocked on my door. I told them I was sleeping. They said, “We have come to fix the electricity.” I opened the door, and a bunch of guys without uniforms—about two dozen of them—came into the room. I thought it was the Chinese mafia. But it turned out to be the Chinese spy agency, the Ministry of State Security. They told me they had some questions, and I needed to go with them. So I said, “Okay, it’s no problem. I have to go back [to Houston] tomorrow. Can we do this quickly?” And they said, “It’s up to you. You’ve got to do it quickly.”They took me to a secret location. I just wanted to finish the questions, because in my mind I never did anything wrong. I had such peace of mind. I told them, “I am going to have a little nap. Do you guys mind?” And they said, “By all means.”The questioning started that night. It lasted probably 10 months. It wasn’t day after day. Sometimes they went weeks without taking me from the cell, but sometimes [they took me] a few times a day. They interrogated me for 199 rounds.Q: What was prison like? A: I don’t want to go into the details because a lot of things are very difficult to bring up. In the beginning it was only me. After 3 months, they moved me into a tiny detention center. I stayed in rooms [with] one or two or three other people. And even though I was in a very hard situation, I was sympathetic to all of them. The detention center is a department of hell. In Chinese, people say there are 18 floors in hell. We were probably on the lowest level, but slowly we took the elevators up, up, and up.Q: How did you cope?A: To keep my brain from being totally scrambled by [the interrogations], I mentally wrote a book for my children on everything I’d learned. And I read the Chinese classics. This reading was done under very difficult circumstances: In the first 3 years I wasn’t allowed to wear my eyeglasses, so I had to squeeze my extremely near-sighted eyes to get clear vision. The squeezing led to a piercing headache that annoyed me without stop.After the interrogations ended, I started to do a lot of intentional thinking to keep my mind occupied and to avoid a mental cave-in. Sometimes, when it was too much to bear, I raised my head, saying to myself with contempt, “You can all go to hell. I will go to Texas, yeah, back to my home.” In that mental picture, the orange-colored lights of my porch were like a lighthouse, guiding a lost sailor.Q: Did you befriend any of your fellow prisoners?A: In prison, people don’t talk about friendship, because many people there have probably been betrayed by close friends. In my case, I just tried to help people. When I felt angry, I did volunteer work, unclogging the toilet drain. When I felt frustrated, I translated for inmates who needed sentence reduction papers written up. Helping others in need helped boost my morale. I didn’t look for anything in return.Q: How did your family deal with your absence?A: This travail has been excruciating to my family. It ruined my wife’s health. And for our kids to grow up without a father … it’s been very difficult. My son was only 5 when I left for China on that business trip. Now he is a teenager at junior high school. The two of us barely know each other. My daughter will go to college this fall. We lost so much time that we should have spent together.It’s hard to be a parent. It’s harder to be a single parent. But it’s hardest to be a single parent without any income. For many years the family had no income at all. [My wife Nan] had to make do by selling whatever she could. She borrowed from extended family and from our best friends to pay my huge lawyers’ bills in Beijing and to cover living costs. We were more than broke. She adopted the habit of cutting paper towels into halves so that they would last longer. And even when [it was hard to make ends meet], she managed to find money to buy the books I had requested and to send me milk powder and vitamin pills to supplement the prison food. She didn’t give me an excuse to give up.Q: How have you adjusted to life back in the United States?A: It’s really, really hard. I still have lots to do in my healing. I need to boost my [run-down] immune system so that not every virus in the outside world will be able to bring me down. I need to [socialize] more. I did not talk much in jail, sometimes going days without speaking a word. I also need to become a contributing member of society again, finding my niche where I can be useful.Q: Do you have any advice for foreign researchers working abroad on sensitive projects?A: Who would want to hear from someone who is arguably one of the unluckiest of all? However, I did learn a few things from my ordeal.First, only associate yourself with those people whose character and ability you admire. Do not compromise. Second, science may be without borders, but scientists do have nationalities. When the issue shifts from pure science to technology, the statement is even truer. Keep your faith in what your country stands for. In no circumstance should you ground your feet in two boats in an attempt to rake in benefits from both.Before you travel abroad, you have to be cautioned of potential perils lurking there. Geopolitical rivalry sometimes makes scientific and technological enterprise extremely complicated in reality. Only when you get caught in geopolitical crossfire do you realize how hard it is for an obscure scientist to convince a mighty nation to do the right thing for you.last_img

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