Sydney professor barred from leaving China

The barring of China scholar Feng Chongyi from travelling back from China to Australia where he holds a position at the University of Technology Sydney has unsettled academia and could have an impact on China research and collaborations between Australian and Chinese universities generally, academics fear.

Chinese public security officials stopped Feng, who is permanently resident in Australia but maintains his Chinese citizenship, from flying back to Australia after a research trip in March.

According to reports emerging last week, and from his own communications with colleagues in Australia, Feng was prevented several times on 24 March from boarding his return flight from Guangzhou airport in southern China, including the following day when he was told by Chinese border officials that he was on a no-fly list issued by the Tianjin National Security Bureau. Feng still holds Chinese household registration papers issued by Tianjin.

Feng is an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney, whose affiliated Australia-China Relations Institute has been considered strongly favourable towards Chinese government points of view. However, Feng, whose current research is on the growth of civic consciousness and democratic forces in China, took a more independent line.

Colleagues said Feng had travelled to China to research China’s crackdown on human rights lawyers, which began in 2015 and is known as the 709 crackdown. During his last week in China, state security officers in Kunming visited Feng and questioned him about his research and the individuals he had been meeting with.

Feng was also told he was being denied exit from China on suspicions that he is a “threat to state security”. According to his own communications with colleagues, he is only allowed to travel within China at present. His lawyer Chen Jinxue said Feng had not been arrested or formally charged.

The New York-based Scholars at Risk said it is concerned about restrictions on the scholar’s travel apparently to retaliate against or prevent non-violent academic work.

Without evidence to the contrary, the organisation said: "Such actions suggest an intent to obstruct the exercise of the right to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association – conduct which is protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

New fears

Fears stemming from the case range from possible self-censorship, particularly by Chinese exchange students and researchers in Australia, to a reduction in travel to the Chinese mainland for research purposes, as well as fears of others, including academics who are Australian citizens, being detained.

“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 academics 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.

China scholars in Australia and other countries including France, the United States and the United Kingdom, last week published an open letter to China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang calling for Feng to be allowed to return home.

“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,” they wrote.

They added: "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.”

Future of collaboration

“Both sides want to see increased research collaboration but political sensitivities, particularly in humanities and social sciences, make it highly problematic. The space of what you can do together is shrinking by the year,” Leibold said.

“Senior university administrators, particularly in China, are thinking about the political sensitivities which rule out so much of what can happen.”

“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.

Others noted that if the University of Technology Sydney, or UTS, is affected, things could be worse for other universities that routinely criticise Chinese government policies. The Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS takes a particularly positive view of bilateral relations between the two countries, and the centre’s director, Bob Carr, a former Australian foreign minister, has promoted the view that Australia should be engaging more with China.

“This situation [Feng’s] could be rather awkward given the vision of that centre,” said Welch.

Carr, currently on a visit to China, said in a media statement on 27 March he was “making representations in Beijing and Canberra” regarding Feng, but said private representations “could be more effective than other approaches”.

UTS said it had been in regular contact with Dr Feng. "[He] has assured the university that he is fine, and that, although he is currently unable to leave China, for reasons we do not yet understand, he nonetheless has freedom of movement in China and freedom of communications," the university said in a 26 March statement.

"UTS has been supporting Dr Feng and his family, which he appreciates. The university is also in contact with the relevant government agencies in the hope that the matter can be resolved as soon as possible."

Photo: Daily Telegraph