BEIJING -- According to China's Foreign Ministry, the detention and arrest of U.S. human rights activist Harry Wu is a criminal case and nothing more.
"The case is just a criminal case. It has little linkage to Sino-U.S. relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said yesterday.
But since Mr. Wu's detention on June 19, after his crossing into China from neighboring Kazakhstan, evidence has been mounting that the matter is more than a simple case of crime and punishment -- and that Chinese authorities have been sharply divided on how to treat him.
"This is a blessing and curse for China," said an Asian diplomat. "On the one hand they have been given a stick to beat the United States, but they're not united on how to use it."
Mr. Wu might have seemed a godsend for China's leadership. With Mr. Wu in custody, the government had an opportunity to punish the Clinton administration for having allowed the president of Taiwan -- China's archrival in international affairs -- to visit the United States.
And Mr. Wu was an American who was born a citizen of China, a figure viewed by the government as a traitor for having told foreigners about China's labor camps and evidence that China sells organs taken from executed criminals.
"I think they realized pretty quickly that having Harry Wu in custody was a great way to antagonize the United States but that it was a major problem as well," said a Chinese professor at a government-run think tank. "That divided people in the government."
The division in the leadership centers on how far to go with Mr. Wu.
Should he be treated like a Chinese dissident -- held incommunicado and sentenced according to the prevailing political wind? Or should he be lightly punished and then expelled as soon as possible in an effort to turn around deteriorating relations with the United States?
Beijing's first response to Mr. Wu's entry into China was to say nothing. Although an agreement with the United States calls for diplomats to be given access to arrested citizens within 48 hours, Beijing did not admit that Mr. Wu was in custody for four days.
When pressed, Chinese authorities seemed to concede that they were violating the agreement, by charging the United States with similar lapses.
Finally, a U.S. diplomat was allowed to meet Mr. Wu on Monday, three full weeks after he was detained. The meeting took place after Mr. Wu was moved 1,900 miles from the border where he entered China to the industrial city of Wuhan.
Two days earlier, Mr. Wu was formally arrested and charged with stealing state secrets. The maximum penalty is death.
U.S. officials have meanwhile told China that the continued detention of Mr. Wu can only worsen relations between the two countries. "I think the thing that would be most conducive to good relations between the United States and China . . . would be the early and prompt release of Mr Harry Wu," Secretary of State Warren Christopher said yesterday.
He added that he hoped a lawyer of Mr. Wu's choice would be appointed to represent him "at a very early date."
According to diplomats who have been monitoring Mr. Wu's case, the authorities' hesitancy to admit they had Mr. Wu reflects uncertainty over how to treat a man they find repugnant -- but who is now a citizen of a foreign country.
"Hard-line elements, especially in the military and security apparatus, want to make an example of Harry Wu and give him a long jail sentence just like they've been arresting those dissidents," said a western diplomat.
Over the past year, China's best-known dissidents have been rounded up and held without charge, something allowed in China's criminal justice system.
As with the dissidents, the eventual fate of Mr. Wu is probably linked to who will succeed China's ailing patriarch, Deng Xiaoping. Only one of the most likely successors has ties to the military or security services, putting pressure on the other candidates to appear no less outraged by Mr. Wu, the diplomat said.
Another line of speculation casts Mr. Wu as a captive of China's security apparatus. Instead of officials not realizing who Mr. Wu was when he applied for an entry visa into China in remote Kazakhstan, some observers here believe that Mr. Wu was given a visa so he could be arrested.
"If this was the strategy, it's hard to see how the Foreign Ministry could have been a part of it because they would have realized that Wu is really a can of worms for China," a European diplomat said. "They have the education and training to know that arresting and trying Harry Wu can only further damage relations."
If true, however, it would go a long way toward explaining the confusion during the 19 days between Mr. Wu's detention and his arrest.
Yesterday, Mr. Shen, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, indicated that China would not give up Mr. Wu even if threatened with tariffs on its products. Higher tariffs would be the result of Washington ending most-favored-nation status, a move that some members of Congress have recommended if Mr. Wu is not released.
"The most-favored-nation status is a mutually beneficial trade arrangement between two countries of economic cooperation," Mr. Shen said. "It has nothing to do with this issue."