Fears mount over detention of academics who traveled to China

June 7, 2024
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New details have been revealed about the fate of academics who have not been seen or heard from since visiting China, leaving scholars “extremely concerned” about repression.

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Yuan Keqin, a former professor at Japan’s Hokkaido University and a Chinese national, was detained in 2019 on a visit to China. At the time it was unclear what had happened to him, with news of his arrest only being shared the following year. Now anonymous sources have told Japanese media that the professor has been sentenced to six years in prison on espionage charges.

Similarly, the Chinese government announced in April that Taiwanese researcher Cheng Yu-chin, who previously worked at a university in the Czech Republic, had been sentenced to seven years in prison, also on espionage charges, after being arrested when entering the country in 2019.

China’s approach of drip-feeding information about the arrest of academics it deems to have violated national security laws is a source of apprehension among scholars linked to the country.

Among those who have gone missing while in China whose detentions have not yet been confirmed are two other Chinese scholars employed by Japanese universities: Hu Shiyun, a professor of Chinese language at Kobe Gakuin University, who returned to China in 2023 and has not been heard from since; and Fan Yuntao, a professor at Asia University, who failed to return from a year-long trip to China in time for the new academic year and has since been unreachable.

“The academic community is extremely concerned about colleagues and collaborators who are victims of such repression for their scholarly activity,” said Astrid Nordin, Lau chair of Chinese international relations at King’s College London.

“Many of us worry about causing problems for people in China who may speak to us, work with us, or engage with us in our research. Many are also disappointed by the lack of comment on these developments from our own institutions.”

China continues to expand its national security laws, with rules coming into force in July set to grant border forces the power to inspect and search content on mobile phones and laptops.

This has further worried the academic community, according to Marina Zhang, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute.

“Scholars collecting research data or participating in international conferences could be subject to suspicion and investigation,” she said. “Even short visits to China might result in entry inspections and searches of electronic devices. This high-pressure enforcement environment undoubtedly hinders academic freedom and international exchange.”

Professor Nordin added that Chinese scholars abroad were “doubly victimized by simultaneously punitive and discriminatory action in states outside China,” such as the “China initiative” in the U.S., launched under former president Donald Trump to combat espionage.

Benjamin Mulvey, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow whose research focuses on international higher education in China, added that academics were becoming “more wary” of doing fieldwork in China.

“I think those of us with foreign passports still feel relatively safe, but we obviously worry about our colleagues that are Chinese nationals,” he said.

“The recent incidents will further contribute to an atmosphere of apprehension among researchers based overseas, and particularly those who hold Chinese nationality. This is likely, in my opinion, to make these scholars less likely to conduct research on the wide range of topics the state deems ‘sensitive,’ and less likely to visit China to conduct fieldwork on these topics.”



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