BEIJING/TOKYO – Some people in diplomatic and intelligence circles are skeptical about the spying allegations leveled against Li Chunguang, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo who fled Japan last month after rejecting a request to be questioned by the Japanese police.
The Metropolitan Police Department’s Public Security Bureau handed over information on Li, a 45-year-old first secretary at the Chinese Embassy, to prosecutors for potential prosecution action on May 31, on suspicion that Li used a false identity to renew his alien registration card.
The prosecutors appear likely to decide against indictment in the absence of the diplomat, who left on May 23.
“Although we did need to question him, if we could (the request was turned down), so we decided to send the case to prosecutors after nearly completing the investigation,” a bureau official said.
Initially, police and some media outlets speculated that Li was involved in espionage. A newspaper said the first secretary is suspected of having obtained information from classified documents leaked from the farm ministry about a project to promote exports of Japanese produce to China.
The public security investigation bureau had been following Li, who is thought to have belonged to an intelligence unit within the People’s Liberation Army, since he was posted to Japan in July 2007 as an economic affairs officer.
On May 31, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano said he met the diplomat five times and denied that he or any other farm ministry officials passed classified documents to him.
According to a friend of Li, since returning to Beijing the former first secretary has been fuming about media reports about his alleged spying and reportedly said he never wants to visit Japan again.
The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said he left Japan because his stint abroad was up. Li’s departure in late May came after nearly five years in Japan — which is typical for many embassy officials.
Ahead of that, Li is also said to have consulted with friends about job opportunities after returning from Japan and inquiring about whether there were any good posts with a government organization relating toeconomic affairs.
Japan’s police suspect he renewed his alien card to open many bank accounts to receive “advisory” fees from Japanese firms.
However, people in diplomatic and intelligence circles say a professional spy typically pays for classified information.
“The Metropolitan Police Department tracked him for five years and came up only with the problem with an alien registration card,” said an intelligence expert who worked in China. “What’s more, evidence shows the first secretary has only received payments when he should have been paying for information.”
“It’s more than obvious that a fraudulent renewal of an alien registration card will easily be spotted if one does it using his real name,” the expert added. “A pro would never do such a thing.”
After the latest case, experts say Japan is “too open” when it comes to data held by the government, while China keeps a strict watch via law-enforcement and other government units.
In May 2009, a ranking official of China’s Xinhua news agency was sentenced to 18 years in prison for spying and other charges.
The ruling said he was punished for receiving around 207,000 yuan, which was worth around ¥2.5 million at current exchange rates, in cash from then Japanese Ambassador Yuji Miyamoto in return for secret data on North Korea and other matters.
But the “secret” information was said to be about matters already in the public domain.
Unlike China, where even trivial data may be classified, Japan doesn’t have strict laws on guarding confidential information. As a result, Chinese spies may view Japan as a sort of heaven where classified data can be obtained legally.
On Li’s case, a Japanese police official suggested that the attempt to call him in for questioning was intended to remove someone they suspected of spying. “If we had let him go home without taking any action, he could come back again as a diplomat.”
Atsuyuki Sassa, who was head of foreign affairs at the National Police Agency, said, “Requesting his appearance for questioning was perhaps the best they could do, but it certainly had the effect of checking (Chinese moves).”