China Accuses Newspaper Editor of Espionage

From a Wall Street Journal story by Chun Han Wong headlined “China Accuses Newspaper Editor of Espionage After Meeting With Diplomat”:

SINGAPORE—A veteran Chinese journalist faces spying charges over his interactions with diplomatic and academic contacts from Japan and the U.S., his family said in their first public comments on the case, more than a year after authorities in Beijing detained him.

Dong Yuyu, a senior editorial writer and editor at a leading Communist Party newspaper, was taken into custody in February last year, along with a Japanese diplomat whom he was meeting at a restaurant in central Beijing, according to a statement issued by Mr. Dong’s family on Monday.

While the Japanese diplomat was interrogated and released hours later, Mr. Dong has remained in detention since then. Prosecutors have indicted Mr. Dong on charges of espionage and, in March, his family was told that the case had been sent to a Beijing court for trial, according to Mr. Dong’s family, who described the allegations as trumped up and likely designed to suppress dissent.

His family said it isn’t clear when Mr. Dong’s trial would start. Under Chinese law, espionage can be punished with heavy jail sentences, from between three and 10 years for less severe cases up to life imprisonment. The death penalty can be issued for especially serious offenses that are deemed to have caused particularly grave harm.

Mr. Dong’s family says he is neither a spy nor has he acted as a foreign agent. Relatives and friends described Mr. Dong’s interactions with American and Japanese academics, journalists and diplomats—going back more than two decades—as open, above board and part of normal intellectual and cultural exchanges that China has encouraged over the years.

The Dong family said it believes Chinese authorities may be trying to silence intellectuals and deter them from meeting foreigners. One family member said Mr. Dong’s detention came as a shock, since the government hadn’t previously raised objections to his interactions with foreigners, which the espionage charges appear to be based on.

More than 60 foreign academics and journalists—present and former—have signed an open letter calling on the Chinese government to “reconsider the harsh charges” against Mr. Dong, saying that “there was never a hint of subterfuge or espionage” in their interactions with him.

“Meetings with people like Mr. Dong are essential if China and the rest of the world are to have productive, open, and stable relations,” the letter said. “Who will want to come to China to meet Chinese journalists, academics, or diplomats if these meetings can be used as evidence that the Chinese side is committing espionage?”

Mr. Dong, who turned 61 this month, has been held at a detention center in southern Beijing, where he was able to speak to his lawyers but was denied meetings with relatives, according to his family. For the first six months of his detention, Mr. Dong was held under a legal measure that bars suspects from outside contact, his family said.

Investigators have probed Mr. Dong on his interactions with Japanese diplomats, including Tokyo’s ambassador in Beijing, as well as the journalist’s fellowships at foreign universities, according to Mr. Dong’s family. The charge sheet against Mr. Dong cited his fellowships and listed the Japanese Embassy in China, the family said.

“The implication is that the Chinese government treats the Japanese embassy and foreign fellowships as espionage organizations,” the family said.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Beijing municipal high court and prosecutor’s office, as well as China’s Foreign Ministry, didn’t immediately respond to inquiries.

At the time, the Japanese diplomat’s detention spurred Tokyo to lodge protests with Beijing over what it saw as a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates legal protections that diplomatic personnel should receive in countries that host them.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the Japanese diplomat “engaged in activities inconsistent with the individual’s capacity in China,” without elaborating further. Citing the Vienna Convention, she said foreign diplomats must obey the laws of their host countries.

Mr. Dong was born in April 1962 in the northeastern city of Fushun. He studied law and received a master’s degree from Beijing’s prestigious Peking University in 1987. Thereafter he joined Guangming Daily, a party newspaper traditionally aimed at a well-educated readership, including intellectuals and artists. Even though Mr. Dong wasn’t a party member, according to his family, he worked his way up the ranks to become deputy head of the newspaper’s editorial department.

Friends and relatives of Mr. Dong described him as politically liberal. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where demonstrators demanded democratic reforms for China’s Communist system before the leadership sent troops to crush the movement. In the aftermath, Mr. Dong was sentenced to a year of hard labor at a steel factory, but was later allowed to return to his newspaper job.

At Guangming Daily, Mr. Dong emerged as a reform-minded and prolific writer, often penning commentaries on economic affairs and winning a number of state-backed journalism awards. Mr. Dong also coedited a 1998 anthology of essays by liberal-minded Chinese scholars, many of whom were calling for China to establish a more transparent and independent judiciary system.

Mr. Dong went to Harvard University on a Nieman Foundation fellowship from 2006 to 2007, during which he studied political reforms and legal systems in postcommunist countries. He also spent time as a visiting scholar in Japan, at Keio University in 2010 and Hokkaido University in 2014.

Mr. Dong also penned essays for Yanhuang Chunqiu, a Chinese history magazine known for publishing liberal writings. He broached sensitive topics such as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and advocated “constitutionalism”—a reference to the Western-style separation of powers and rule of law. He also wrote commentaries for the New York Times’ Chinese-language website from its launch in 2012 until 2014, though he stopped after China barred local journalists from contributing to foreign media outlets.

“The high pressure of authoritarianism can indeed produce greater efficiency than a constitutional democratic system, and it can indeed create a dazzling sprinting speed along certain stretches of road,” but such speed can’t last and “will instead hinder the overall process of social progress,” Mr. Dong wrote in a 2012 Yanhuang Chunqiu essay arguing that historical trends were in favor of constitutional republics.

As a nonparty member who aired liberal views, Mr. Dong wasn’t privy to sensitive information and had been sidelined internally at Guangming Daily, according to his family. They said party inspectors, sent to review political rectitude at the newspaper, assessed in 2017 that some of his past writings were “anti-socialist,” including his Yanhuang Chunqiu essays on the Cultural Revolution and constitutionalism. The finding put Mr. Dong at risk of demotion but a senior editor protected him, the family said.

Mr. Dong befriended many American and Japanese journalists, diplomats and academics over the years, often discussing global affairs with them over meals, according to his family. Japan’s ambassador to China, Hideo Tarumi, who had known Mr. Dong for decades—having befriended him during earlier stints in Beijing—invited Mr. Dong to a Lunar New Year celebration at his residence two years ago, according to Mr. Dong’s family.

Mr. Dong was aware that Chinese state security officials were monitoring his activities, particularly after he found himself being surveilled and followed ahead of his Harvard fellowship, Mr. Dong’s family said. He made sure his interactions with foreign contacts were above board by meeting them in public spaces—such as the Beijing restaurant where he was detained—according to the family.

Family members said investigators forced the veteran journalist to write down in detail what he did each day during his visits to Japan in the 2010s. They said authorities also cited Mr. Dong’s contacts with foreign diplomats as evidence, but haven’t presented any proof of him receiving financial benefits from foreign parties.

Mr. Dong and his family cooperated with investigators, hoping to persuade them that “his foreign ties were not suspicious but a normal part of his job and a normal interaction between peoples in most parts of the world,” the family said in its statement. By indicting Mr. Dong, “the message seems to be that foreign contacts are taboo.”

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