The 24 crew members of the American EP-3E Aries II spy plane are back on U.S. soil, but a State Department source has told ABCNEWS there are at least 20 U.S. residents held in Chinese prison cells and work camps.
The source, who requested anonymity, said the U.S. government will not release the names of the detainees for fear of violating the Privacy Act.
Scholars, researchers and a businessman are among those being held. They are virtually all of Chinese ancestry. Some are naturalized U.S. citizens and some are Chinese citizens who have green cards according them permanent residency in the United States.
Human rights advocates call them "political prisoners" convicted on phony charges so they can be held as hostages to be released only in return for concessions by the United States on trade or other issues.
The detainees' families watched the spy plane case closely.
Donghua Xue, whose wife, Gao Zhan, has been imprisoned in China since February, says he had mixed feelings on the release of the American crew. "I'm so happy about the crew members coming home and the celebration. I'm very happy for their families," he says, "but I'm thinking of my wife."
Xue, a computer engineer with EDS, and Gao, a researcher at American University in Washington, were arrested at the Beijing International Airport in February with their 5-year-old son, Andrew, a U.S. citizen, as they prepared to return to the United States. The couple — U.S. residents — had spent three weeks visiting their parents in Xian and Nanjing.
Xue said they were arrested by agents of China's State Security Bureau. "Those people didn't talk. They just pushed us to the exit. There were several cars waiting. They pushed me in the first car … and my wife and son in different cars and drove away," he recalls.
Xue and Andrew were released 26 days later, but Chinese authorities continued to detain Gao without charges. Then, a day after the U.S. Navy spy plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island, they charged her with espionage.
Assessing Detained Americans' Rights in China
Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights of China, says Chinese State Security Bureau agents "are the principal violators in those cases, because they are principally dealing with foreigners or green card holders coming from abroad."
Several members of Congress are calling for the United States to step up its efforts to help the detainees.
"All focus went on the crew members because they were American servicemen and women," says Sen. George Allen, R-Va. "Now we need to make that same sort of effort so the [detainees] are accorded rights as American citizens there in China."
Critics claim the U.S. government is not doing much to free them because they are of Asian ancestry, a charge denied by the State Department.
Song Yongyi, a librarian at Pennsylvania's Dickinson College, was arrested and released last year. He says "the conditions are harsh. This is a real jail."
Unlike Xue, who was held in a single room, Song said he was housed with ordinary Chinese prisoners. "Five people share 70 to 80 square feet of space, including the bathrooms, including everything."
"They don't allow full sleep of eight hours. They will ask everybody, every cell mate to wake up for two hours, and just sit there to watch other cell mates. So you never get enough time to sleep."
Here are some of the U.S. citizens and residents, besides Gao, being held in China:
Qin Guangguang, U.S. resident and vice president of a medical company, arrested in December.
ABCNEWS' Mary Walsh contributed to this report.