Scholar’s Jailing For Spying Set To Dampen Bilateral Ties

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Beijin has slapped a six-year prison sentence for spying on a former Chinese professor from Hokkaido University of Education in Japan.

According to press agency reports this week. Academics in Japan, who maintain there is no evidence for the espionage charges, say the latest move deals a severe blow to bilateral academic flows.

Professor Yuan Keqin (68), who taught East Asian politics in Japan for 25 years, is believed to be the first Chinese academic employed by a Japanese university to be officially sentenced in China following his detention in 2019.

According to reports from Japanese news agencies, Yuan was officially accused in 2020 of spying for the Japanese government and sentenced in January this year by a court in Changchun in China’s Jilin Province. Yuan had returned to China in 2019 to attend his mother’s funeral in Jilin, central China, when he was detained.

Yuan’s is the first official sentencing following a string of arrests and disappearances in China of Chinese professors on temporary visits from Japan. When asked about Yuan at a press conference in Beijing this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “What I can tell you is that China is a country that respects the rule of law and handles relevant cases in accordance with the law.”

A ‘chilling’ effect

Ken Suzuki, a professor of Chinese law at Meiji University in Tokyo, told University World News: “The news of the sentence, despite the fact that Professor Yuan was not a political activist, is especially chilling for Japanese scholars.”

He said the incident has poured cold water on any hopes of boosting academic relations between China and Japan. China in particular has been calling for a restoration of people-to-people exchanges with Japan.

“Japanese and Chinese professors have begun rejecting offers to conduct research in China to avoid a similar fate. I see the risk facing this sector as only escalating in the future,” Suzuki added, noting China regards research in the social sciences and science and technology as particularly sensitive.

Yuan is reportedly appealing his sentence. A group of individual academics, including Suzuki, who launched a website, “Save Yuan Keqin”, denouncing the verdict as being based on “false accusations”, are calling for his immediate release.

“Yuan Keqin was a respected scholar who contributed to Japanese academia for several decades. He was very popular with the students. There has been no evidence to support the accusation of espionage,” said Yuan supporter Professor Naomi Chi based at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Hokkaido University.

Chi said the website was first launched to raise awareness about Yuan’s detention in China and appeal for support. It has collected almost 1,600 signatures to a petition demanding his immediate release.

“Academia has been protected by freedom of expression in Japan. But with threats facing scholars in other countries, there is a growing need for us to protect them,” she said.

In 2023 Hu Shiyun, a professor of Chinese language at Japan’s Kobe Gakuin University, disappeared after returning to his native China for a visit. The university said it was unable to contact him and his family did not know where he was.

Last month reports emerged that Fan Yuntao, a Chinese professor at Japan’s Asia University and an expert in international law and politics, had become uncontactable after he temporarily returned to his home country in February 2023. He was due to return to Japan in April, but failed to do so.

Among the academic papers published by Fan was an examination of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, focusing on its impact on “changing the international order in East Asia”.

In 2013, Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Tokyo’s Toyo Gakuen University, was detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of illegal intelligence-gathering. He also vanished while on a trip home.

Geopolitical tensions

Chinese and Japanese scholars are conducting their research against a background of growing geopolitical tensions, with Beijing accused in recent months of stealing Western and Japanese technology.

“Science research in Japanese universities has a high acceptance of top Chinese students and this represents another vulnerable area,” said Suzuki, referring to the risk of fewer research students coming to Japan due to fears of espionage-related charges.

A nagging concern is the lack of measures by Japanese authorities and universities to protect Chinese professors in Japan. In April, after the disappearance of Fan Yuntao in Shanghai, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi commented that the government was “aware” of the incident and was closely monitoring the situation.

“This could be a matter related to the human rights of the professor,” Hayashi told Japanese media, sparking a social media outcry during which the government was described as “irresponsible”.

In a 27 April report Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper said the Japanese government should step up its efforts to obtain more information and reasonable responses from Beijing even though the detainees in question were Chinese nationals.

Patrick Poon, visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo and a human rights activist, told University World News Yuan’s sentencing highlighted the dangerous impact of China’s espionage law which was revised in 2023 which, he said, “permits ambiguous arrests fostering transnational repression”.

He added: “Chinese scholars living in Japan have academic freedom and think they are safe. But the arrests of Chinese nationals indicate that Chinese surveillance in Japan poses a major threat to them and academic freedom in Japan.”

Japanese scholars

Japanese academics have also been detained in China. Japanese scholar Nobu Iwatani, an expert on the Sino-Japanese conflict of 1937-45, was detained on spy charges while on a visit to China in 2019. Despite being released a month later, his detention under China’s 2014 espionage law affected academic visits between the two countries.

Japanese citizen Hideji Suzuki, arrested while on a business trip to China in 2016, served six years in prison in China on spying charges. He is one of 17 Japanese nationals detained on such charges since 2015. Five of them were jailed.

Though not a university academic, Suzuki, who insists he is innocent of the charges against him, had been head of the Japan-China Youth Exchange association and taught university courses in China on the normalisation of ties between Japan and China after World War II.

Since his release and return to Japan in October 2022 he has spoken publicly through Japanese media, saying he was targeted as part of the Chinese government’s growing efforts to control academic studies of China. He said this also led to the arrests of nearly 20 Chinese professors returning from work at Japanese universities. His figure has not been verified.

University World News

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