Professor Returns to AU, Warns Lawyers at Risk

On Sunday, Sydney-based professor Feng Chongyi returned to Australia after a more than week-long confinement to China during which he was relentlessly questioned, though not detained. Feng, a Chinese citizen and Australian permanent resident, has been a vocal critic of China’s growing influence in Australia, and was in the country to conduct research on human . The obstruction of his return prompted intensive media coverage and a call for his release by more than 150 scholars around the world, and contributed to the mounting parliamentary opposition that derailed a vote on the ratification of a decade-old treaty between Australia and China. Reuters’ Philip Wen reports:

“If they wanted to scare me they failed miserably,” Feng, a well-known China Studies expert at the University of Technology Sydney, told Reuters via telephone.

[…] Feng said his case, as well as interviews he conducted before being interrupted, showed the space for government criticism or dissent had been tightened further.

He said he had been unmolested when he met with what he described as “sensitive contacts” on a trip to China a year ago.

“In terms of rule of law and human rights it’s getting worse and worse. It’s clear their control of Chinese citizens [has] become harder and harder,” he said.

[…] Feng said he was informed on Saturday morning by the state security officers who had been questioning him daily that he was free to leave. He was made to sign a statement pledging not to divulge details of his interrogation sessions as a condition of his release. [Source]

Though Feng has talked widely to the press, he has said little about his questioning, except that it was so wide-ranging that he was unable to determine its objectives beyond possible intimidation of himself and others, and that “I got bored. I hope they got bored, as well.” His compliance with the non-disclosure agreement is likely motivated by his hopes of returning to China to continue his research, but also by his concern for the Chinese lawyers who helped him pursue an official explanation for his treatment. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Andrew Greene reports:

After arriving in Sydney, Dr Feng said he was not told why he was permitted to leave China, but acknowledged he was concerned about what might happen to the lawyers who had helped him there.

“I did not do anything illegal, and the lawyers only performed their duty,” he told the ABC.

International law expert Don Rothwell from ANU says whatever agreement Dr Feng signed as a condition of being allowed to leave China, it would not be enforceable before an Australian court, due to “principles of private international law and the doctrine of ‘foreign governmental interests’.”

[…] However he warns there remains a threat to Professor Feng’s legal team, his family, friends, and associates if he speaks in detail about his recent ordeal. [Source]

News.com.au’s Malcolm Farr attributed the release to “backroom maneuvering” by former foreign minister Bob Carr, who was in China last week and reportedly pressed officials on Feng’s case. “Certainly it was a long and undeserved week of harassment for Professor Feng,” Farr concluded, “but it might have lasted longer if protests had been louder.” Feng has acknowledged the role of the government’s work on his behalf, constrained though it was by his lack of Australian citizenship, but also gave credit to the media which threw a global spotlight on his case. From Damien Cave at The New York Times:

“Until I got on the plane and got past border control, I was not sure it was real,” Professor Feng said in an interview on Sunday 20 minutes after his overnight flight landed. “The authorities yielded to international pressure — including yours, the media. The media played an essential role in pushing them across the line.”

[…] Professor Feng added that despite his confinement, he did not intend to stop traveling to China. “I’m free to come and go, and I will return,” he said. “As I said to my friends — I shall return.”

Still he warned that the impact of his release should be seen as narrow in scope, as there are many others who are not as well known, and are more vulnerable to China’s restrictions and aggressive tactics.

“For anyone who gets in trouble in China, the support of the international community, especially the international media, is essential,” he said. “That is the only thing that will make them care.” [Source]

Feng has also welcomed the Australian government’s decision to postpone the vote on the extradition treaty. From The Australian’s Primrose Riordan:

Speaking to The Australian back at home in Sydney with his daughter, Yunsi, Dr Feng said he was “absolutely” pleased the Turnbull government had withdrawn an instrument to ratify a China-Australia extradition treaty from parliament.

He said cases such as his — he was interrogated, charged without any paperwork with “endangering state security” and pun­ished with a travel ban — showed the dangers of such a deal.

“It would be a fatal mistake because­ it would give an excuse to the Chinese authorities to get anyone,” he said. “They can make up a charge to suit their purposes: ratifying the treaty would be a terribl­e, terrible thing to do.”

In light of opposition from Labor, the crossbench and several Coalition MPs, Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said they would halt attempts to ratify the deal for now, suggesting they would bring it back when they had rebuilt support­. [Source]

China has also pursued an extradition treaty with , whose Prime Minister John Key expressed openness towards the idea last year. (Canada is also considering an agreement.) While no such deal is yet in place, the country’s High Court is currently deliberating its first ad hoc extradition to China, that of a South Korean national accused of a 2009 murder in Shanghai. Minister of Justice Amy Adams first approved his extradition in November 2015, but was rebuffed by the High Court last July, before repeating her original decision in September. From Radio New Zealand:

In the second judicial review over the extradition, at the High Court in Wellington yesterday, Mr Kim’s lawyer Tony Ellis said recent comments by China’s Chief Justice Zhou Qiang showed his client would not be guaranteed a fair trial.

He said Mr Zhou had argued that judicial independence was a western concept which did not apply in China. [See more via CDT.]

“You can’t have a fair trial while that’s continuing in China,” Dr Elllis said.

[…] He also doubted New Zealand officials in China would be capable of monitoring whether or not Mr Kim had been tortured.

[…] Crown prosector Austin Powell told the court there would, however, be immediate consequences if China were to breach an assurance – something it had never done before.

“It would be very difficult for China to extradite anyone from anywhere ever again,” he said. [Source]

At The Australian, meanwhile, Alan Dupont wrote that the treaty’s rejection by a diverse coalition “should be a reality check for proponents of closer ties with a country that shares few of our core values”:

Pragmatists assert that we have to look beyond this democratic deficit because we live in a China world, and shaping that world to our advantage ought to be a foreign policy priority. Australia’s first ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, in his recent Whitlam Oration assumes that getting closer to China would give us more influence over its policies, but that’s a dubious assumption.

There are obvious limits to the influence a country of Australia’s small population and modest strategic weight can have on a state of almost 1.4 billion people, particularly one imbued with the notion of its own greatness and manifest destiny. Moving closer to China could have the reverse effect of limiting our independence of action and making us more ­susceptible to the kind of economic pressure recently applied to South Korea for daring to host a US anti-missile system in opposition to China’s wishes.

Fitzgerald’s more telling point, on which China hawks and doves can surely agree, is that our knowledge of the Middle Kingdom is unacceptably poor for a nation that trumpets its Asia literacy. As ties deepen, and become more complex, we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of China and how it leverages statecraft to advance its national interests. [Source]