Academics in Japan shun events in China amid fears over professor’s disappearance in Shanghai

Fan, 61, is an expert in international law and politics at Asia University in Tokyo. One of his papers, available on the university’s website, examines Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and asks how it could “change the international order in East Asia”.

Fan had told family and friends that he intended to return to Japan in April last year but managed to get word to relatives shortly before his disappearance that he had been told to accompany Chinese government officials for questioning, Kyodo News reported.

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In a statement issued to This Week in Asia, Fan’s university said the professor is “currently on leave of absence” but declined to elaborate “in order to protect personal data”. The university “sincerely hopes that the individual will return to work,” it added.

A professor at the university declined to comment on the disappearance of his colleague.

Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo, Hayashi said: “This could be a matter related to the human rights of the professor, who has been engaging in education at a Japanese university for years.”

Japan is “closely monitoring” the situation but has declined to comment further as the matter is “sensitive”, Hayashi said.

The government’s position was met with scorn on social media. A comment on a story about Fan’s disappearance on the website of The Mainichi newspaper said: “The government should stop its irresponsible attitude of ‘closely monitoring’ and doing nothing but pander to China. As a politician, you should have some pride.”

Another online user said: “‘Closely monitor’ – what empty words. We need effective ways of dealing with this situation.”

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi at a press conference in Tokyo. His comments on missing Chinese Tokyo-based academic Fan Yuntao have prompted scorn from online users. Photo: Kyodo
Fan’s disappearance is the latest in several similar incidents involving Chinese academics based in Japan. Hu Shiyun, a professor at Kobe Gakuin University, has been out of contact since returning to China in August. Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University, vanished in 2013 in Shanghai. He was released six months later and returned to Japan.

In 2019, Yuan Keqin was detained during a visit to China for his mother’s funeral on suspicion of espionage. Yuan, a professor of Asian politics for 25 years at Hokkaido University of Education, was later indicted on espionage charges by Chinese authorities, but there has been no news on the status of his case.

Several academics told This Week in Asia they fear going to China for academic events over concerns that they might be detained.

“I would definitely not accept an offer to attend an event in China as there are absolutely no assurances that I would be allowed to return to Japan,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

“There have been quite a few Chinese academics who have been arrested after returning to their homeland as well as several Japanese businesspeople,” he told This Week in Asia. “There seems to be no clear reason for these arrests. It is impossible for me and other academics to go there now.”

Chinese academic’s disappearance sparks concerns among compatriots in Japan

Another Japanese professor said while he had previously authored papers on China, Taiwan and security issues in northeast Asia and conducted academic research in China on several occasions, he would not want to return to the mainland.

“With that background, I would be asking for trouble if I tried to go there again,” said the academic, who declined to be named.

One Chinese academic who had met Fan through his work in Japan said he has “no concerns” about returning to China in the future as he has always been careful to distance himself from any actions that could be misunderstood by either the Japanese or Chinese side.

The academic, who also declined to be named, said he avoided Fan after he knew the Chinese national was working for a Japanese university.

“Both the Japanese and Chinese intelligence communities want information on the other side so it is important to keep a good distance from both,” he said. “If anyone asked me for information, I always said no.”

He declined to elaborate on what he had been asked to do or for which country.

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Jeff Kingston, an American who is the director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said he would be willing to travel to China for an academic event, but agreed that for Chinese expatriate academics and – increasingly – Japanese professors, “It is a tough call.”

“A lot of people realise that China has a very spotty track record on academic freedom,” he said. “I would not worry too much about going as I’m not important enough, but for members of the Chinese diaspora who stray into certain areas, that is more dangerous.”

For Shimada, the possibility of being detained for contravening Beijing’s draconian new anti-espionage laws is a serious concern, but equally so is Tokyo’s potential inertia when an academic goes missing in China.

“Assuming everyone is a spy is like something out of the Cold War,” he said. “But it is what China is claiming and Tokyo has done nothing to push back on that for either Japanese nationals accused of espionage or Chinese who have lived and worked in Japan for years.

They (Japan’s officials) are weak-kneed when it comes to China

Yoichi Shimada, a Japanese academic

“I have no faith that the Japanese government would do much to get me home if I was accused of something; they are weak-kneed when it comes to China,” he said.

The Japanese academic who declined to be named said there is little Tokyo can do regarding any such incident as it involves another country’s laws.

“It is hard for Japan to intervene because that is the law of China,” he said. “We may not know exactly what the law says and the authorities there can interpret it however they want, meaning that they can effectively accuse anyone of breaking the law, but it is their law and Japan cannot influence that.”

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