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Global Perspective: Counter political repression amid China's detainment of Japan citizens

By Ken Endo, Dean, Hokkaido University Graduate School of Public Policy

The New Year has arrived but I am still thinking about something that happened last year: the detention in September of a Hokkaido University colleague in China during their participation in academic exchanges.

The incident effectively ended when the professor came home. During the two months of his detention, I had to spend many literally sleepless nights because, as a close colleague, I had no choice but to get involved in his rescue. The family members of the detained had to go through an unimaginable ordeal. Thanks to the tireless efforts of many people, coupled with calls for resolution by academics, the media and civil society, as well as determined actions by top government officials, the case came to a close before the year's end.

Still, the incident continues to pose a question because China's oppressive nature shows no signs of weakening.

The early release was possible thanks to the fortunate timing of the incident. It depended less on Japanese efforts and more on the planned visit to Japan this spring of China's President Xi Jinping as a state guest. China itself hoped to remove possible obstacles to making the visit a success, and Tokyo did try to steer Beijing in that direction.

Dozens of Japanese nationals who have been arrested since the introduction of China's counter-espionage law in 2014 have not been so fortunate. They have been indicted and convicted one after another. Chinese nationals residing in Japan also continue to be detained. Scholars and civil activists from Western countries are no exception. The incident last September is part of this pattern. Now Beijing detains anyone whom it considers to have a negative effect on the maintenance of its regime, and the threshold for such a move is getting lower. Against this backdrop I would like to consider how to counter China from three angles.

First of all, there is the issue of the "at-your-own-risk" attitude in our society toward detained people. If such incidents happen, in other words, how responsible is the Japanese government for solving them? In an authoritarian country such as China, the concept of the "rule of law" is only considered as a tool of control by the Communist Party and "criminal charges" can therefore be conjured up by those in power as they wish. Ordinary activities like buying old books needed for research or interviewing people to learn what is going on can be targets of persecution. As was the case with the September affair, private citizens who have experience working at government agencies tend to be seen with suspicion. Many people in Japan, as well as those in China, determined that individuals with connections to the government's activities were "guilty." People who consider themselves as knowledgeable about China had a stronger tendency in this regard.

Numerous people get involved in grey areas in China. Should they bear the whole responsibility if they are arrested? Considering China's deepening arbitrariness in handling those cases, the Japanese side should think twice when Beijing says someone committed a "crime." What we should do is not blame the individuals themselves but tackle those incidents based on an updated conception of protecting our own citizens.

The second issue I would like to bring up is the bilateral relationship between Japan and China. What is at stake is how we are going to formulate academic, journalistic and other forms of private exchanges between the two countries. This is a tough question because many people think that private-sector exchanges should continue even if government-level ties are deteriorating,

What happened last year shocked the academic world in Japan, and many people now hesitate to visit China. It is only natural that distrust is deepening when researchers, who are supposed to be allowed to collect materials or exchange views freely, are targeted based on arbitrary and tightening detention standards.

Will the targets remain confined to academia? Journalists are next in line, say sources in diplomatic circles. Journalist visas are issued for specific purposes allowed by the Chinese government, but many reporters go beyond those limits and try to contact various sources. Freelance reporters often enter China with no visas. Journalists cannot report on the reality by following lines set by the Chinese government. This means that the Chinese authorities could seize journalists at any time they please. Despite this possibility, few media organizations considered the September case as something affecting them too. In addition, those in corporate circles did not appear to feel any sense of crisis at all over the incident. In short, little sense of solidarity existed.

As Japan's private and civil sector is divided on the critical issue of being vigilant against arbitrary detentions, is it desirable and effective to pursue forms of private exchanges between Japan and China? That is the question that needs to be asked. People in the private sector must establish a shared understanding of basic freedoms as the indispensable premise for promoting bilateral exchanges.

The third issue I would like to refer to is the future of the wider world. How are we going to tackle China becoming a major power with growing cash reserves and production capacity while it is doing all the things I mentioned above? This question goes beyond Japan-China ties and affects Japan's conduct as a country.

The United Kingdom and the United States, two hegemons that led the world in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, although they brought about a number of global problems, continued to carry the torch of freedom and democracy. Those two countries are now in the middle of political confusion at a time when an authoritarian country like China is rising, and Japan, despite its postwar success of maintaining freedom and democracy to a certain extent, cannot escape the brunt of such developments.

Inside China, personal dictatorship seems to be solidifying and political repression knows no boundaries. In the country's peripheral regions such as Tibet, the Xinjiang Uygur region, Hong Kong and Taiwan, China's projection of power has resulted in the undermining of human rights. How should Japan tackle these negative developments reaching its shores without sacrificing its own freedom and democracy? It's not an overstatement to say that answering this question will determine the course of Japan in the 2020s.

Receiving President Xi as a state guest without an answer to this particular issue will mean, in the eyes of the world, that Tokyo has given a seal of approval to China's gross violation of human rights. Indeed, one cannot derive a solution to a diplomatic matter based solely on human rights issues, but we should at least have discussions on the pros and cons and possible conditions of his state visit. This is a question requiring our collective, serious reckoning.

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