The timing could not have been worse. Just as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was visiting Australia, Chinese security services detained a University of Technology Sydney professor because of suspicions about his research on human rights. In the most benign interpretation, the arrest demonstrates the difficulties of guiding and coordinating the vast Chinese ship of state; in its worst, it shows a contempt for Australia and an arrogance that smaller countries can expect from Beijing. Regardless of the why, however, the detention spotlights China’s questionable record when it comes to respect for academic freedom and human rights, and has jeopardized an important item on Beijing’s agenda with Canberra.
Chongyi Feng’s work focuses on human rights lawyers in China. Those advocates have come under increasing pressure during the tenure of President Xi Jinping. Amnesty International has concluded that the Chinese government has drafted and enacted “a series of new national security laws that presented serious threats to the protection of human rights. … Activists and human rights defenders continued to be systematically subjected to monitoring, harassment, intimidation, arrest and detention.” Some 250 lawyers and activists have been arrested in a national crackdown since 2015.
Last month, diplomatic representatives of 11 countries in China, Australia among them, sent a letter to Guo Shengkun, China’s minister of public security, that expressed “growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders.” It also called on Beijing to investigate reports of torture against human rights lawyers and urged the Chinese government to abandon a detention system that holds suspects in secret locations for months at a time. To its credit, Japan was one of the 11 signatories.
Feng is a longtime student of Chinese politics who has called for liberalization of the one-party rule of China’s Communist Party. He is a prominent figure in the Chinese diaspora in Australia, a former newspaper publisher and outspoken critic of Beijing’s attempts to mobilize the Chinese community in Australia on behalf of Chinese interests. In one analysis, he took aim at Xi, arguing that “he has made an historical U-turn” when dealing with reform, and “he has restored totalitarian values and destroyed existing achievements in the rule of law.”
Those comments were never before a problem. On his most recent trip, however, Feng was prevented from leaving China, although he has not been formally detained or arrested. Ostensibly, he is being investigated for endangering national security — which is how Beijing interprets Feng’s three weeks of fieldwork that involved meeting with human rights lawyers.
The arrest could not have come at a worse time. It occurred in the middle of a five-day visit to Australia last week by Li, the first such visit by a Chinese prime minister in over a decade. Li is promoting closer economic ties with Australia, a move that many interpret as an attempt to drive a wedge between Canberra and Washington, Australia’s alliance partner. During his visit, Li and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed to give Australian beef unhindered access to the growing Chinese market, a deal that will boost a critical Australian export and further consolidate a trade relationship already valued at nearly $110 billion and in which bilateral investment exceeds $100 billion.
The arrest undercut Li’s claim in a speech during the visit that China respects the rule of law and prompted Australia’s Senate to shelve consideration of an extradition treaty between the two countries. The agreement has been under discussion for a decade, held up precisely because of concerns about China’s respect for human rights and the independence of the judiciary.
Explaining the arrest is difficult. It takes no great insight to anticipate the blowback that accompanied the detention. The simplest explanation is that it reveals the difficulties in coordinating the many elements of government in a country of this size with its many authorities. Quite simply, the local security forces that arrested Feng were not alerted to or thinking about Li’s visit and message.
The more ominous explanation is that security forces were well aware of the larger context in which the arrest occurred and they, along with the diplomatic services, were indifferent to the negative impact. In this interpretation, Chinese behavior reflects the mindset famously articulated by former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in 2010, when he complained to the ASEAN Regional Forum that “there are big countries and small countries, and China is a big country and that is a fact.” That attitude is evident in much of Beijing’s dealings with countries on its periphery and is one of the most powerful limits on Chinese influence in Asia and beyond. It certainly cast a long shadow over Li’s visit to Australia.