A Chinese academic barred from returning to his home in Australia after a research trip looking into China’s crackdown on its human rights lawyers, has been allowed to return to Sydney after a week of being prevented from boarding a flight home. Feng Chongyi said on his return he would continue his work in China.
“If they wanted to scare me, they failed miserably,” Feng, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney said on his arrival in Sydney on 2 April. “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.”
Feng has previously spoken out against China's ruling Communist Party "shutting down speech".
Feng, who is a Chinese citizen with permanent residency in Australia, had been blocked from returning to Sydney and was interrogated for more than a week for “endangering state security”.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation or ABC reported that as a condition of his departure, Feng was required to sign a document promising not to detail his interrogation by authorities and where it took place.
Feng said that he answered questions about a wide range of topics, but did not know what in particular had caused Chinese officials to bar him from leaving the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou twice. He explained that he was free to roam around in his hotel, but couldn't stray far in case he was needed for more questioning.
Feng believes that pressure applied to Beijing by the Australian government played a major part in his release.
The University of Technology Sydney said in a statement that it was “very pleased that the matter with Associate Professor Chongyi Feng has been resolved”.
Feng's ordeal came at an awkward time in the bilateral relationship between China and Australia as Chinese authorities were pushing Australia to ratify its long-stalled extradition treaty with Beijing. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, visiting Canberra at the time, had asked the government to ratify the treaty so that Chinese fleeing from China's anti-corruption campaign could no longer use Australia as a safe haven.
The treaty has now been put on hold indefinitely amid concerns over China's human rights.
“It was a clear case there, where the detention of Feng Chongyi backfired,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and an expert on China, shortly before Feng’s release.
On his return Feng told The Australian newspaper that he was pleased the extradition treaty instrument had been withdrawn from parliament by the government as cases like his showed the dangers of such a treaty.
An extradition treaty “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.”
However, the Feng case may also have served as a warning to Chinese Australians. "Unfortunately, a signal of intimidation has been sent to Chinese Australians not to criticise Communist Party interference in Australian domestic affairs," the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, Rory Medcalf, told ABC.
Several professors in Australia described the Feng case as a shot across the bows for China scholars.
Leibold said: “The global China studies community breathed a big sigh of relief with the return of Professor Feng to Australia, to his family and friends. Yet the incident is a timely reminder of the importance of maintaining an independent, critically-engaged China studies community, one that is capable of resisting censorship and self-censorship in the face of ongoing harassment of academics by the Chinese Communist Party and its security apparatus.”
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