Commentary / Japan

A chill descends on Chinese scholars in Japan

In higher education sectors in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the “China threat” debate has become divided between those emphasizing the national security dangers in the Chinese Communist Party’s projection of influence into universities abroad, and those emphasizing the risks of stigmatization of Chinese scholars and students through fear-mongering about such dangers.

Both sides in this debate have a point. In a growing Cold War atmosphere exacerbated by anger over the COVID-19 pandemic, even Chinese-American students and scholars have been subjected to unfair suspicions of being CCP agents.

Yet there is also no denying evidence that under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China is implementing a far-reaching statist integration of university research and industry organizations with military and state security interests, and imposing expectations on Chinese scientists working domestically or abroad to serve those interests. Knowingly or not, those scientists and their foreign research collaborators can then become complicit in the regime’s militarization and its human rights abuses.

Less recognized in this debate is the China threat to the human rights of Chinese scholars and students, both in China and in universities abroad, and the duty to protect them from this threat. Moreover, the Anglophone-centric character of this debate ensures that some particularly frightening instances of that threat in Japanese universities are barely noticed. The case of Yuan Keqin, a Chinese historian at the Hokkaido University of Education charged with espionage in China this year, certainly deserves to be better known.

A permanent resident of Japan, Yuan studied postwar East Asian political history at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in the 1980s and was active in Japan-based student activism relating to the Tiananmen Square occupation in 1989. However, following his appointment at Hokkaido University of Education in 1994 he eschewed political activism to focus on his research, and published a monograph on America and Sino-Japanese reconciliation in 2001.

On May 25, 2019, Yuan and his wife returned to his home city of Changchun in northeastern China for his mother’s funeral. He stopped contacting his children and colleagues abroad not long afterward. In July, Yuan’s wife notified his university that he was receiving treatment for high blood pressure, but afterward she ceased contact as well. However, Yuan’s family in China soon leaked information to his children and to his Japanese friends that he had been detained on suspicion of espionage.

In December, a group of Yuan’s Japanese friends and fellow scholars issued a petition declaring his innocence and calling for his release, and held a press conference together with Yuan’s son Chengji in Sapporo. However, China’s Foreign Ministry made no announcement about Yuan’s legal situation or whereabouts.

Finally, during a regular news briefing on March 26, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang announced that Yuan had been detained on suspicion of espionage, and had already confessed to his crime. No details were given of his arrest, or of the charges he faced. Yuan’s daughter Ying, living in Canada, subsequently released information that he and his wife had been arrested outside a Changchun train station on May 29, 2019.

His wife was allowed to return to Japan, but according to testimony by Yuan’s family, she was contacted in June 2019 by the State Security Bureau in Changchun to collect Yuan’s laptop, computer discs and cell phone and bring them back to Changchun to submit to them. She did so, believing that these materials would be used to prove his innocence. Yuan’s family testified that he was formally charged with espionage in Changchun city’s Intermediate People’s Court on March 6.

Two lawyers in Changchun were able to review Yuan’s case file. One described its contents as “beyond ridiculous.” Another said that the file contained no proof Yuan had deliberately committed espionage, but there were vague intimations that his “words and actions” had possibly “harmed the national interest.”

The seeming arbitrariness of the charges against Yuan and the long delay in announcing his detention is no accident. Writing in 2002, sinologist Perry Link underlined the Chinese Communist Party’s distinctive psychological methods for quelling potential political opposition among intellectuals and scholars who might interfere with its highest political priority — to maintain “its grip on power.”

Such arbitrary, ambiguous methods aim to induce a constant sense of wariness that incentivizes self-censorship and circumlocution in expression, pre-emptively impelling potential regime opponents to do the state’s job by restraining themselves. Link brilliantly captured the intent of this “censorial authority” and the dread it induces in his metaphor of an “anaconda in the chandelier.”

Already in 2002, Link could point to how this authority was also inducing self-censorship in foreign scholars with research connections in China. He could also see that this censorial power was being “projected overseas” and hinted that such projection would intensify as China’s international involvements grew.

And so it has proven to be the case for a number of Chinese citizens working and studying in Japan’s universities over the past two decades. The two-month detention in Beijing last year of Hokkaido University historian Nobu Iwatani, under suspicion of “collecting state secrets,” suggests that Japanese scholars researching China may also have to get used to “looking up.”

But what has Hokkaido University of Education done for Yuan, its employee of 26 years? According to Yuan’s supporters, very little. In an op-ed in the Mainichi Shimbun, Hokkaido University professor Akihiro Iwashita criticized the university’s “unhelpful” and “passive” attitude. In correspondence with me he went further, accusing the university’s administration of “adopting a posture of not wanting to have anything to do with the case,” of preventing university faculty from speaking with the media about it and of an uncooperative attitude when Yuan’s son sought their assistance.

The university has no major revenue dependencies on fee-paying Chinese students or other potential financial vulnerabilities to Chinese Communist Party fiat that might explain this inaction. Another Hokkaido University professor and Yuan supporter, Naomi Chi, suggested to me that the explanation for the inaction may lie in a bureaucratic, risk-averse desire “not to rock the boat,” and in a much less palatable attitude of victim-blaming.

In a previous article about the University of Tokyo doctoral student and Uighur prisoner of conscience Tohti Tunyaz, I speculated that there was a duty for the colleagues and mentors of persecuted scholars to speak out for them, and to demand their universities act for them. Which is what Tunyaz’ mentors and colleagues did. Yet some universities today appear unwilling to rock the boat. Others comprehend their relations with Chinese students and faculty within a transactional framing, as sources of revenue, jobs and research funding, and within the more tacit constraints imposed by creeping CCP “United Front” influence. It can therefore be hard to imagine that there is such a duty at all.

Let me suggest an analogy that makes the idea of such a duty clearer. Suppose you are a member of a prestigious sports team, and befriend a foreign teammate who spends years training and playing with you. But then, when she returns to her home country — temporarily or permanently — she is unjustly accused and denounced for cheating, simply by playing in the way she trained with you to play. Surely you would be outraged, and out of loyalty, friendship and commitment to the values of the game, you would feel bound to protest for your friend, and expect your team to do likewise.

So I think there is a duty for scholars to protest and to enlist their universities’ support on behalf of colleagues and students intimidated or persecuted for observing the universal values of their “game” — of freedom of inquiry and of conscience. And make no mistake, cases like Yuan’s are having a chilling effect among Chinese scholars in Japan and elsewhere. One young researcher told me of a dread that “not only limits my research choices but also directly impacts my feelings of academic achievement and my relationship with my family.”

Another asked me to convey the following warning, which does not apply only to Chinese scholars: that today’s emerging reality “puts China scholars, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, in a dangerous position. Whatever they are studying, and wherever they are, they are under the jurisdiction of the Chinese party-state. If universities outside China do not protect these China scholars in the name of academic freedom, self-censorship will become a norm in the field of China studies.”

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University.

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