By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A slender, grey-haired woman with a face that seemed frozen in sorrow walked to the front of the auditorium and bowed twice, asking for help.
The mother of Xiyue Wang, an imprisoned Chinese American scholar in Iran, thanked the dozens of dignitaries, academics and political representatives who turned out for a candlelight vigil for her son on March 11 at the University of Washington (UW) School of Law.
She did not say if she had asked China, her country of origin, which has closer relations with Iran than the United States, for help. But the Chinese government, shortly after Wang was captured, disavowed any obligation to help him, although he was born in Beijing.
“You should know the relevant Chinese policies,” a spokesman told a Chinese reporter at a press conference in August 2017.
“We do not recognize dual nationality. You say also that Xiyue Wang has U.S. nationality. I can clearly tell you that according to our understanding, he does not have Chinese nationality.”
As of this writing, Wang has been imprisoned in Iran for more than 940 days and, despite a UN resolution calling for his release, remains in limbo.
A graduate of the UW and a doctoral student at Princeton University, he was doing research in Iran when he was captured in August 2016 and later charged with espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Recognizing the failure of earlier efforts, supporters gathered to call on the U.S. government and the United Nations to push harder for Wang’s release.
Linda Iltis, assistant director of the Henry M. Jackson School and a mentor of Wang, was one of those that characterized Wang as a promising scholar whose arbitrary detention threatened the principles of academic freedom.
“I still remember it was in August of 2016, Xiyue’s mother came to my office to ask if I remembered her son,” she said, speaking to an audience of about 30 people at the vigil. “The last time I saw him was in 2006.”
But she remembered him clearly.
“He was one of the most thoughtful and caring advisees I’ve known in my 30 years, a brilliant scholar,” she said.
Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, speaking in a recorded video from Princeton, thanked all Washingtonians, including the governor and senators, for their activism on his behalf.
She echoed a sentiment that would be repeated multiple times by every speaker.
“He is a student, not a spy,” she said.
She recalled his love affair with the UW, where he completed a double degree in International Studies and Asian Languages and Literature.
She mentioned the “unforgettable days he spent in the stacks in Suzzallo Library.”
But most of all, frowning away tears, and breaking off during her speech, she begged Iran to free her husband.
“I pray for the gates of mercy to be opened,” she said.
She was seated next to their 5-year-old son, who was drawing cartoon pictures.
Wang is one of a series of hostages Iran has taken over the past four decades, for political purposes since the 1978 Iranian revolution.
Apparently, Wang, along with other prisoners, was taken hostage by the Iranian government to put pressure on the United States, or to be used as a bargaining chip as the government seeks to gain leverage in negotiations with the United States.
In his memoir “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison — Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out,” Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian wrote that, “For the growing community of us — those foreign nationals taken captive by the regime — Iran’s revolution was actually the birth of the Hostage-Taking Republic of Iran.”
Alejandra Gonza, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the UW School of Law, which organized the event, argued that actions to save Wang must proceed beyond the condemnation already issued last August by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
“The United States has an obligation to use every legal and diplomatic tool to bring him home,” she said.
But, she also called on the United Nations to do more and asked Washingtonians to step up pressure.
“We have to walk hand in hand and go to the United Nations together,” she said.
Gonza’s father was also a political prisoner, arrested in Argentina when she was one, she told Northwest Asian Weekly. And her mother had to go door to door to get help, in her case to prevent him from being executed.
Gov. Jay Inslee, in a statement read by his director of international affairs and protocol, Schulyer Hoss, also called the incarceration of Wang a threat to academic freedom.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce, also in a written statement, echoed those words and called the detention “a profound injustice.”
Yet Wang is more than just a symbol of academic freedom. Even in captivity, he continues to work on his dissertation and is learning Tibetan and Tibetan history.
“He asked us to make photocopies of his research materials in Cyrillic and mail them to him in prison so he can keep working on his dissertation,” said a fellow PhD student in History from Princeton, Alexis Siemon.
Sitting in the front row at the vigil, holding Tibetan scrolls in his hand, Ter Ellingson, a professor of comparative religion and South Asian Studies at the UW, explained he was there to pass on the “untranslated materials” so they could be conveyed to Wang.
As if in some weird foreshadow, or parallel, of the politics behind the current crisis, the scrolls comprise a Tibetan law code that summarized both the “complicated” Chinese law system of the time and the “arbitrary and wild” law code of the Mongols.
As the vigil drew to a close, participants held up candles as a slide show showed photos of Wang and his wife and son in spots around the world, from the porch of a small house, to a vast mountain plain, to a pristine river surrounded by trees. In nearly every photo, Wang is holding his son either on his knee or on his back.
There is no word as to when he might be released. His sentence is for 10 years, but there are no guarantees about his ultimate fate.
Like other captives, he was filmed at least once in an apparently forced statement that was aired by the Iranian authorities.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.