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As ties crumble, Chinese spy law could see more Japanese citizens detained

March 28, 2023

China has detained a Japanese national on suspicion of being a spy, with Tokyo pressing for his immediate release as ties between the two neighbors continue to sour. | REUTERS

China has detained a Japanese national on suspicion of being a spy, with Tokyo pressing for his immediate release as ties between the two neighbors continue to sour. But this is far from the first time Beijing has detained a Japanese citizen over alleged espionage. And it may not be the last.

The detention in Beijing earlier this month involved a Japanese man in his 50s who is being held on suspicion of violating China’s notoriously opaque counterespionage law. The Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma has confirmed that the man is one of its employees. He had planned to return home this month.

Since China passed its counterespionage law in 2014, 17 Japanese nationals, including the Astellas employee, have been detained in the country for allegedly engaging in spy-related activities, with Beijing ramping up a crackdown on foreign organizations and affiliated individuals, citing national security concerns.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning highlighted similar cases of Japanese nationals detained in recent years, saying that Tokyo “needs to do more to ask their citizens not to engage in such activities.”

Before this month’s detention, a Japanese diplomat was detained in February 2022 for allegedly illegally collecting information. The man was held temporarily for questioning and released hours later, prompting Tokyo to lodge a formal complaint with Beijing over the incident via diplomatic channels.

In 2019, a Hokkaido University professor specializing in modern Chinese history was held during a trip to Beijing on suspicion of spying. China’s Foreign Ministry claimed he later confessed to illegally collecting state secrets. Two years earlier, six Japanese nationals were detained for “illegal activities,” with four later released.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning speaks at a news conference in Beijing on Monday. | KYODO

Prior to the current counterespionage law, four Japanese nationals in China were arrested and investigated in 2010 for entering an unauthorized military zone and shooting footage of military targets, state media said at the time.

Those arrests came after a dispute over the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands erupted into a full-fledged diplomatic crisis when Tokyo detained a Chinese fishing captain who had rammed his boat into Japanese patrol vessels in waters near the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Currently, five Japanese nationals remain detained in China, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Other countries have also seen their citizens detained. In 2018, China held Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman with a history of working in North Korea. Both were detained for more than 1,000 days.

They were held on charges of espionage and collecting national secrets. Their release was announced hours after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou flew out of Canada, following her own release from house arrest after cutting a deal with U.S. prosecutors.

Beijing has denied detaining the two men as a kind of “hostage diplomacy,” or diplomatic retribution, for the arrest of Meng.

A Chinese fishing boat is inspected by Japan Coast Guard crew on Sept. 7, 2010, after its captain rammed two JCG vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Four Japanese nationals in China were arrested and investigated in the wake of the incident. | JAPAN COAST GUARD / VIA REUTERS

According to Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in the U.S., foreign defendants grappling with the opaque Chinese judicial system are often unaware of their misdeeds, with many facing months in detention.

As a norm, allegations involving national security concerns, as well as trials, are not disclosed to the public, with most case details hidden even after rulings are finalized.

The counterespionage law lists specific procedures that should work to protect defendants, Ku said. These include rules that limit the maximum amount of time a defendant is supposed to be detained without charge.

“But the Chinese system rarely follows these kinds of legal safeguards,” Ku said.

Kovrig and Spavor were detained for months without any charges or sufficient evidence provided to support the charges.

The counterespionage law was promulgated in 2014 with the aim of reinforcing national security and establishing a “unified” statewide security system.

China expanded its regulations in 2017 to include any form of assistance or association with groups or individuals that harmed the state’s national security. This included rules that define “hostile groups” as anyone that challenges the Communist Party, as well as foreign nationals who distort or distribute information that goes against national security.

“It is fair to say that the Chinese system can be used as a tool to coerce Japan, or put pressure on Japan. … There is no easy way to know,” Ku said, adding that Beijing may be emboldened to continue employing these tactics, especially as relations between China and the U.S. and Japan continue to sink.

“I do think these types of moves will happen with greater frequency in the near future as relations go further downhill,” he said.


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