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ASIA

Concerns for Sydney-based academic detained in China

Feng Chongyi has been twice blocked from flying out of the country after conducting research into human rights lawyers in China. Beijing accuses rights lawyers and liberal intellectuals of threatening national security.

The Australian government is attempting to mediate the case of a Sydney-based professor who has been prevented from boarding a flight home from China.

Dr. Feng Chongyi, who is an Australian permanent resident, was twice barred from flying out of Guangzhou airport in southern China on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Associate Professor in Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is a prominent academic in Australia's Chinese community and was previously the head of Chinese studies at UTS for 11 years.

Feng did not discuss his situation in detail during a brief phone call to Australia before the line was abruptly cut off.

Hopeful for a quick resolution

Swinburne University academic and friend of Feng, Professor John Fitzgerald, says it is a good sign he is still able to communicate and maintains freedom of movement within China.

"We draw hope from the fact that Feng is not in detention," he told DW. "He is in touch with friends and colleagues around the world and is free to move about the city. For the moment he cannot leave the country."

UTS said they had been maintaining contact with Feng throughout his ordeal. "We have been in regular contact with Dr. Feng, including as recently as this morning," the university said in a statement released on Monday, March 27. "He is in good spirits. We have continued to provide support to him and to his family here in Australia."

"Additionally, we have been in contact with the Chinese Consulate in Sydney to convey our concerns for Feng and to request their assistance for a speedy resolution."

A spokesperson from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) said there are limits to what they can do given that Feng is a Chinese citizen.

"The Australian government is aware that a UTS professor, who is an Australian permanent resident, has been prevented from leaving China. The Australian government is able to provide consular assistance only to Australians who have entered China on an Australian passport."

Former Australian foreign minister and current head of the Australia-China Institute at UTS said in a statement on Monday that he was "making representations in Beijing and Canberra" about Feng's situation and hoped that his "return could be quickly resolved."

A dangerous place for critics

Feng travels regularly to China in order to undertake research. Previously, he had never been stopped from flying out of the country.

Watch video 02:33

China: Human rights lawyers live in fear

But this time round, according to his lawyer Chen Jinxue, Feng may have been prevented from leaving due to his research into the plight of human rights lawyers in China.

He had just completed a three-week trip researching the Chinese government's crackdown on human rights lawyers when security officials allegedly met Feng in his hotel room and asked who he had spoken with during the course of his research.

"He has no way of leaving now," Chen told reporters on Sunday.

The crackdown on lawyers began in July 2015, with the Chinese government accusing them and liberal intellectuals of subversion or threatening national security. A number of Western states, including the US, have urged China to release the detainees, while rights groups claim the campaign is likely intended to silence opponents of the Communist Party.

Although the exact reasons why Feng has been barred from leaving the country remain unclear, Professor Fitzgerald believes it was not initiated by authorities in Beijing.

"From all reports, Feng's research into the difficulties confronting rights lawyers has alarmed local authorities in a relatively remote part of China," he said. "These local authorities have prevented him from leaving the country."

However, he claims Feng has not openly criticized the Chinese state.

"Feng is not a dissident, and I don't recall him ever challenging the legitimacy of the Chinese state. He does raise tough questions about the way things are done in China. So do many other loyal Chinese citizens."

Feng recently expressed concern over the increasing influence of Beijing authorities on Australia's Chinese-language media outlets, particularly concerning the promotion of Maoism.

Australien Li Keqiang bei Turnbull (picture-alliance/Photoshot/P. Xinglei)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaking with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra.

Chance timing

Feng's situation comes as the Australian Senate looks likely to once again block a contentious extradition treaty between Australia and China. The treaty has remained in limbo since 2007 due to ongoing concerns over human rights in China and the lack of transparency under the Communist Party-controlled legal system.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has warned that not ratifying the treaty may weaken cooperation between Australian and Chinese authorities.

China's Premier Li Keqiang recently completed a five-day visit to Australia, something which Fitzgerald believes may work in Feng's favor.

"It certainly does no harm for a small local issue like this to gain international attention on the back of PM Li's visit to Australia," he said. "The visit by the Chinese premier was fortuitous, in a way, providing a foundation of good will for resolving the matter."

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