A Sydney academic, whose detention in China earlier this year created international headlines, is warning that his harsh treatment is designed to intimidate Chinese in Australia and academics researching topics deemed sensitive by Beijing.
Feng Chongyi, Associate Professor in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, described heightened surveillance and increasing curbs on his research by China’s state security apparatus over the past two years.
“There are many people similar to my situation who are residents overseas, and have so far been somehow free, going back and forth to China doing research,” he told the Little Red Podcast. “It may send a signal that you are not allowed to do that any more [or] to touch these sensitive topics as defined by the party state.”
Dr Feng, who is a Chinese-born resident of Australia, has been vocal in his criticism of Beijing’s crackdown on political dissent.
He was winding up a three-year project funded by the Australian Research Council interviewing human rights lawyers around China when he was twice barred from leaving the mainland, and told that he was suspected of threatening state security.
Though he was permitted to stay in a hotel in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, he was interrogated over more than a week before a high-profile campaign led by fellow academics secured his release in early April.
Dr Feng said his ordeal may be designed to send messages to multiple constituencies, including overseas Chinese and academics researching China.
Increasingly tight controls on academics researching sensitive topics were “an open secret”.
When he began his research three years ago, he would meet groups of up to six human rights lawyers for dinner, but over the past two years the security services had begun monitoring his activity and cancelling his meetings.
“As long as we touch down in China, we are sure that we are followed, our telephone calls are tapped,” the UTS professor said.
“They know all about our travel plans. It’s not secret to them.
“In the past, they were satisfied to just stand by and watch over what activities we engage. But now, in last two years, they cancel the meetings and the dinners.”
Dr Feng’s interrogation was wide-ranging, covering both his research in China and his activities in Australia, including his criticism of Beijing’s influence over the Chinese-language media in Australia.
He said he had used the interrogation to try to educate state security officials about Chinese constitutional law.
Dr Feng attributed his release to the serendipitous timing of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia, combined with a high-profile campaign that included a petition signed by more than 100 academics.
In the interview with the Little Red Podcast, Dr Feng firmly rejected the notion that backroom manoeuvring might have been instrumental in securing his release.
“It’s absolute rubbish,” he said. “If you do something under the table, they can keep it secret. They can keep you whatever period they want. Anything negotiated under the table or within China, they have absolute control.”
Dr Feng, who is also an adjunct Professor of History at Tianjin’s Nankai University, expressed surprise at his detention, particularly as he says he remains a member of the Communist Party.
“It’s a very dodgy situation because they did not formal[ly] expel me, but I did not withdraw.”
Dr Feng is warning that China’s influence is now stretching beyond its borders and even into Australia, with Beijing holding increasing sway within Australian institutions, including academia.
“In the old days in the West, we had an expectation that slow economic engagement will help some kind of peaceful evolution. Now, the direction has reversed.
“They are quite success[ful] to modify the political system here. A lot of things are quite detrimental to the freedom of our press and the freedom of our universities. It’s quite scary.”
Dr Feng believes his ordeal should ring alarm bells within Australia at a time of rising Chinese influence.
“If Western democracies are really serious about political civilisation, human rights and the rule of law, they have to defend it very forcefully,” he told the podcast.
“If they submit to the requests of the Chinese regime to have economic engagement at the expense of human rights or the rule of law, that is very detrimental not only to the Chinese but also to democracies around the world.”
► Louisa Lim, a former China correspondent for the BBC and National Public Radio in the US, is based at the Centre for Advancing Journalism and teaches in the Master of Journalism program.