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Fast-Rising Number of Japanese Detained in China is an International Issue

What is behind the growing number of Japanese and other foreigners detained under China's counterespionage law? The author provides several case studies.



A surveillance camera is silhouetted behind a Chinese national flag in Beijing, China, November 3, 2022. (© REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo)

A Japanese man in his fifties who was detained in China in the summer of 2019 on espionage charges was recently sentenced to twelve years in prison by a court in Hunan Province. Furthermore, earlier in 2023, a Japanese executive with Astellas Pharma, a major pharmaceutical company, was detained in Beijing. 

In recent years, China's counterespionage law has been revised. Since then, the number of cases of Japanese nationals detained without an explanation of the reasons has soared.

Increasingly, people are saying. "It's too scary to go to China."

China's President Xi Jinping in San Francisco, California, on November 15, 2023. (©REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Pool)

Jailed for Mentioning International Politics

According to Japanese and Chinese sources, the man sentenced to prison in Hunan Province was a company employee living in Changsha City, Hunan Province. He worked in the nursing care industry. Therefore, he had almost no connection with political, diplomatic, or military affairs. Judging from the standards of international society, it is extremely likely that he was falsely accused. 

Then there is the case of Hideiji Suzuki, a former executive of a Japan-China friendship organization. Suzuki was detained by Chinese authorities in 2016. He was accused of alleged espionage activities and sentenced to six years in prison. After serving that sentence, he returned to Japan in 2022 

Suzuki wrote a memoir after returning to Japan. According to his story, one of the direct reasons he was jailed was a simple inquiry. When eating with someone connected to the Chinese government, he inquired about news reported in Japanese media that a top North Korean official had been executed. "Is that so?" he asked casually. The Chinese replied, "I don't know." This simple back-and-forth was one of the reasons he was arrested on suspicion of "eliciting State secrets." 

In the first place, whether or not a North Korean high official was executed is hardly a Chinese state secret. In China, however, there have been cases in which a person was found guilty for merely mentioning international politics. 

Not Just Japanese at Risk

Not only Japanese but other foreigners as well have been imprisoned for trivial reasons. 

At the beginning of October, Cheng Lei, a female Australian journalist of Chinese ancestry, was finally released. She had been detained by the Chinese authorities for three years on suspicion of "leaking State secrets." 

In an interview with Australian media, Cheng explained that she had been arrested for having shared official information with a third party a few minutes before the expiration of an embargo that had been placed on its release to the public.


Early release of embargoed information occasionally occurs in the world of journalism. Even though breaking the rules like that might draw a rebuke, it is not a crime. There is absolutely no doubt that imprisonment for three years was a gross overreaction. 

Cheng's arrest happened to take place during a time when the Australian government was criticizing China for its tight control of information regarding COVID-19. It is generally viewed as a case of political retaliation by Beijing. 

A Hong Kong woman accused of violating the Criminal Conduct Ordinance goes to court on November 3 in Hong Kong (©Kyodo)

Curtailing Free Speech Abroad 

On November 3 a Hong Kong court sentenced a female university student to two months in prison. She was accused of inciting national division by posting support for Hong Kong independence on social media sites while studying in Japan. 

This conviction of an individual for speech in a foreign country has attracted a great deal of attention. The shocking ruling suggests that in the future if a foreigner publicly supports the independence of Hong Kong or Taiwan while in his or her own country, he or she could be arrested and charged with a crime after entering China. 

In still another case, in March of this year, Li Yan-he, editor-in-chief of Gusa Press in Taiwan, was secretly detained in Shanghai. (He is widely known by his pen name Fucha.) 

Taiwanese media reported that among the reasons for Li's arrest was his company's translation and publication of a book on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and other areas written by a Japanese scholar. Li's arrest has become big news because he is only the company's editor-in-chief, not the author or translator of the book. 

Expanding the Definition of 'Counterespionage'

China's revised counterespionage law went into effect in July. Since then, the government has been calling on the Chinese public to participate in anti-spying activities. Provisions are also in place to recognize individuals and organizations that report cases of espionage. 

However, the definition of "espionage," the key concept of the law, is purposely ambiguous. The law's goal of "establishing a State security system" includes "political security," "military security," "economic security" and even "cultural security." 

The obvious interpretation would be that cultural activities may also be subject to the crackdown under the counterespionage law. And those involved in cultural exchanges with China will be at increased risk of being detained in China in the future. 

A security surveillance camera overlooking a street is pictured next to a nearby fluttering flag of China in Beijing, China November 25, 2021. (© REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Residential Surveillance Is a Violation of Human Rights

In China, almost without exception "political prisoners" who have been charged with crimes like espionage or seeking to overthrow the Communist regime have been found guilty in subsequent trials. Trials are conducted behind closed doors. In many cases, they are said to have resulted in convictions based solely on the defendant's statements, even in the absence of objective evidence. 

Under Chinese law, detention before formal arrest is called "residential surveillance." Moreover, there is a provision for confinement in the basement of a facility, usually called an "invitation center." Police can hold one there for at least six months. Most individuals detained by the Chinese authorities "confess" to what they are being accused of during this residential surveillance period.

According to Suzuki and others who have experienced residential surveillance, the room in which they were held was windowless. The bedroom door had been removed and the living room was monitored around the clock by several police officers. He could not even turn off the lights.

But the hardest part was the total lack of sunlight. After several months of living under these conditions, detainees are liable to become psychologically unstable.  At that point, they become willing to confess to all the crimes they have been framed for.


Embassies Denied Information on Charges

In principle, during such a period of residential surveillance, the detainee is not allowed to meet a lawyer or family members. In the case of foreigners, on rare occasions, visits by embassy or consulate officers from their home country are allowed. 

However, the Chinese authorities will not permit discussion of the charges. Therefore, the diplomats can only listen to requests for food and clothing, and convey messages to the detainee's family members.

It goes without saying, that these methods adopted by the Chinese authorities constitute serious human rights violations. However, few people know about the reality of this situation. Unfortunately, it is therefore rarely regarded as a problem in the international community.

Taiwan G7 foreign ministers
A Chinese newspaper posted in Beijing reports on military exercises conducted by the Chinese military around Taiwan on April 10, 2023. (© Kyodo)

More than 50 Taiwanese Incarcerated

It is not only Japanese nationals who are being detained. The number of cases in which foreigners are detained by China on suspicion of espionage and other crimes has been increasing rapidly in recent years. 

There have been reports of arrests of Americans, Canadians, Swedes, and others. There are also reports that more than 50 Taiwanese are languishing in Chinese jails. 

Since 2010, 17 Japanese have been detained in China for political reasons. At least 5 of them remain in Chinese custody at this moment. 

Nonetheless, the case of the pharmaceutical company executive arrested at the beginning of this year is exceptional. He was a long-term resident of China, having lived in Beijing for more than two decades. Furthermore, he had served as a senior officer of the Japan Chamber of Commerce in China. 

After he was detained, then-Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi flew to China to seek his early release. The only reply he was able to get was that "the case will be handled in accordance with Chinese law."

It is the duty of the Japanese government to protect Japanese citizens. To gain the release of the Japanese nationals detained in China, the Japanese government should now vocally protest and doggedly negotiate with the Chinese authorities. Meanwhile, it should continue strengthening cooperation with other governments.


(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: Akio Yaita, Taipei Bureau Chief


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