Academics Protest Professor’s Travel Ban

Last weekend, Sydney-based professor Feng Chongyi was repeatedly prevented from boarding flights from China back to Australia. Feng, a Chinese citizen and Australian permanent resident, has vocally criticized China’s expanding influence in Australia, and was in China conducting research on its ongoing crackdown on rights lawyers. Though not detained, he has repeatedly been questioned and told that he was suspected of threatening state security. On Thursday, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson confirmed to reporters that “in order to safeguard China’s national security, the relevant departments took measures in accordance with law against Chinese citizen to prevent him from leaving the country.” The remarks did not appear in the official press conference transcript.

Also on Thursday, Feng’s daughter in Sydney begged the Australian public and academics not to “let this issue go away,” expressing fear “that this will be drawn out and we don’t get an indication of when he can come home.” (The daughter of detained Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai has expressed solidarity on Twitter.) More than 80 scholars from Australia and around the world have responded to Feng’s situation with an open letter to the Chinese leadership:

Dear President Xi and Prime Minister Li,

We the undersigned are members of the global China Studies community. We are deeply concerned by the travel restrictions recently placed upon Professor Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney, which have prevented him from departing the People’s Republic of China and returning to his workplace and family in Sydney since last week.

Professor Feng is an internationally respected scholar of intellectual and political developments in modern and contemporary China. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking books, and a frequent commentator on issues of importance in the Australian media. He is, furthermore, a vital contributor to the global China Studies community, and his presence in Australia has significantly enhanced its learning and research environments in Chinese Studies.

We are disturbed that a fellow researcher, who has dedicated himself to promote the understanding of and interest in China, has been prevented from returning to his home and workplace for no reason other than his conscientious work as a China Studies scholar. Such actions make it difficult for the rest of us to be confident in the research environment in China today, and do not contribute positively to the continued construction of open and productive higher education collaboration between China and the rest of the world.

In light of China’s commitment to expanding international scholarly engagements, we respectfully request that Professor Feng be released and permitted to return to his workplace and home in Sydney. [Source]

A separate initiative by the New York-based Scholars At Risk “calls for emails, letters, and faxes respectfully urging the appropriate authorities to investigate the situation and to lift any travel restrictions against Professor Feng or, pending this, to explain the circumstances of any restrictions on his travel and to ensure his access to counsel throughout any investigative proceedings.”

University World News’ Yojana Sharma reported fears of self-censorship and chilled academic exchanges as a result of the restriction on Feng’s movements:

“All China centres in Australia and perhaps more broadly will be paying close attention to this case, and his [Feng’s] treatment,” said Anthony Welch, a professor of education at the University of Sydney. “At the moment it’s a matter of wait and see for most China watchers and China scholars.”

“It has hit a nerve. There is a lot of concern among my colleagues and friends here in Australia, given that Feng is a PRC [People’s Republic of China] citizen and was willing to stick his neck out,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and an expert on China, who admitted he was now more fearful of visiting China, despite years of travel there for research purposes.

“Clearly, under President Xi Jinping there has been a growing distaste for anyone who does not toe the Party line so we have seen an incredible strengthening of propaganda controls that reach everywhere from the state-run media all the way down into universities. And now, clearly, overseas. China is using its increased powers to exceed its borders, to the extent that with like Dr Feng who come to China, they intimidate them, they detain them and even imprison them in some cases,” Leibold told University World News.

[…] “This is unfortunate at a time when we need to understand China more and China needs to understand the world; it means less interaction between Chinese and foreign academic colleagues,” Leibold said. [Source]

The Australian’s Primrose Riordan and Rachel Baxendale reported a similar reaction from Rory Medcalf at Australian National University:

Professor Medcalf said he was worried about the effects of Dr Feng’s detention on academia and the Chinese-Australian community, considering Dr Feng was outspoken on the Chinese govern­ment and democracy.

“The clear signal is one of intimid­ation towards Chinese-Australian voices that are critical of Chinese Communist Party influence in Australia,” Professor Medcalf said.

“It is indirect interference in Australia’s domestic affairs and I think it appears to be an indirect attack on Australian academic freedoms.”

Professor Medcalf warned it would have a “harmful effect” on Australia-China relations. [Source]

One immediate result of Feng’s predicament may have been to help force the Australian government’s cancellation of a parliamentary vote on the ratification of a decade-old extradition treaty with China. agreements are highly prized by Beijing, especially as tools in Xi Jinping’s signature anti-corruption campaign. They are highly controversial elsewhere, however, as reactions to a Canadian announcement of negotiations showed late last year. (Two former directors of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also expressed reservations about the planned deal this week.) Critics argue that the corruption drive has doubled as a political weapon, and that even legitimate targets should not be placed at risk of serious abuses during the extra-legal investigations conducted by the Party’s internal disciplinary apparatus. A lengthy recent exploration of this shuanggui system by The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe described forced and scripted confessions; deprivation of food, sleep or appropriate medical treatment; the use of stress positions, beatings, and cigarette burns; and death threats or threats against family members. Similar abuses have been reported elsewhere in both politically sensitive and ordinary criminal cases.

The deal’s ratification faced a last minute surge of opposition over these and related human rights concerns, which Feng’s case likely exacerbated. Kevin Boreham of the Australian National University described the objections at The Conversation. Boreham noted that the treaty does bar extradition in political or discriminatory cases, or those involving double jeopardy or likely torture or execution.

The Australian government also emphasised that the Extradition Act contains a general discretion to refuse surrender. This enables consideration by the decision-maker (the attorney-general or the justice minister) of human rights concerns, including whether an extradited person would have access to a fair trial.

However, the Law Council of Australia has assessed that the assurances regarding this right provided inadequate protection. This is because they relied on the discretion of the decision-makers in each country, and the process could be “influenced by a wide range of factors”.

The treaty contains a discretionary ground for refusal of an extradition request where extradition would be:

… incompatible with humanitarian considerations in view of that person’s age, health or other personal circumstances.

However, the treaty did not add to this provision the words “unjust or oppressive”, which are contained in ten other Australian bilateral extradition treaties. The attorney-general’s department was unable to explain to the parliamentary committee why these words had not been included. It stressed that each is unique. [Source]

An editorial in The Australian prior to the vote’s cancellation argued:

Ratifying an extradition treaty with China amounts to a vote of confidence in its legal system. That endorsement is premature, to say the least, and the Senate is entitled to block the treaty when it has the opportunity this week. Our government cannot guarantee that Australian citizens will not be sent to China on trumped-up charges or denied a fair and open trial. As we report today, Tony Abbott has come out against ratification but he is far from alone. Figures from across the political spectrum have concerns, as does the legal fraternity.

[…] China singles out corrupt officials who have fled abroad as likely targets for extradition. But the treaty also could allow the extradition on false charges of a business figure who has fallen out with a well-connected Chinese partner. And China could contrive charges to pressure its critics among the Chinese-Australian community. Under the treaty, China does not have to provide evidence to prove its charges.

China’s legal system is not transparent and the rule of law does not apply. For 10 years the extradition treaty has been stalled, yet to be ratified. There are good reasons for caution. [Source]

But the paper’s economics editor David Uren argued on Friday that Australians “cannot turn our backs on China’s new world”:

China is a difficult global partner; it is not democratic and, under President Xi Jinping, it increasingly is autocratic in the exercise of state power. China is a nuclear force and a potential adversary, a reality taken into account in Australia’s military planning. The Chinese security forces’ barring of Chinese academic Chongyi Feng returning to Australia, where he has lived for two decades, was an unwelcome reminder of China’s disregard for what Australians consider as a human right to freedom of movement.

But China is also the world’s second largest economy and by far the most important economic partner that Australia has had since it cut the umbilical cord with Britain after World War II — and we need to respond to that reality.

[…] China’s influence now reaches far beyond the resources sector into every crevasse of the Australian economy. In the past year 1.5 million tourists from China and Hong Kong visited Australia, more than from any other nation, while about 500,000 permanent Australian residents were born in China. There are 70,000 Chinese students at our universities and colleges. The intensity of this inflow of people makes it extraordinary that we have no extradition treaty to formalise bi­lat­eral management of criminal affairs. [Source]

Australia’s former high commissioner to Canada Greg Wood commented at The Globe and Mail:

When it comes to China, the tension in Australia between morals and mammon is omnipresent, as are tensions between our trade and strategic interests. Still, it was unexpected that a treaty of importance to China would be shot down. For Mr. Turnbull, it was yet another political miscalculation.

[…] The government majority on the parliamentary committee predictably gave its approval, though through gritted teeth. It welcomed “… the human-rights safeguards provided … but … cannot dismiss concerns over the lack of transparency of Chinese justice system, allegations of the ill-treatment and torture of prisoners, and the continuing imposition of the death penalty.” The opposition Labor Party rejected signature at least until the legislative framework to govern Australia’s extradition policy is comprehensively reviewed. If this happens, the treaty will probably need to be re-negotiated, something China is unlikely to accept.

Australians get regular reminders of the workings of the Chinese justice system. The courts and the Communist Party work in lockstep. Currently, 15 employees of an Australian casino operator of varying nationalities are in jail, as yet not charged. When they are, they will be convicted of whatever. […] [Source]

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded to the cancellation of the ratification vote by maintaining that the treaty “would serve the interests of both sides,” and urged both Australia and Canada to “proceed from the bigger pictures of bilateral relations.”

Though it continues to push for the treaty’s ratification, Canberra has taken other steps in recent weeks to challenge Beijing over rights issue. It was one of eleven nations to sign a letter expressing “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.” (Yaxue Cao summed up the “extraordinary” reaction by “seriously rattled” Chinese authorities at China Change this week.) In Singapore two weeks later, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made what Human Rights Watch described as “unusually sharp” comments on “liberal democratic institutions [as] the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability,” citing China in particular as a country where they are lacking.