“It was a very serious interrogation.” Detained by Chinese agents on his way home to Australia in April, activist Dr Chongyi Feng might have faced imprisonment. Instead, safely back with his family, the former Communist Youth League member is speaking out for those who want reform in China – and want it soon.
Words by Jana Wendt
Photography by Tim Bauer
2 June 2017
Reading time: 16 minutes
"It’s over," thought the compact, bespectacled man as he approached the final departure barrier at Guangzhou airport. His academic mission had been a success, the interviews conducted during the month’s field trip providing valuable new material. Dr Chongyi Feng’s subject, which had preoccupied him for two years, was human rights lawyers and their role in the new China.
A Chinese citizen, well-connected in the Chinese Communist Party of which he remained a member, Chongyi Feng was flying back to academic life in Sydney after another return visit to his homeland. It was a journey he had made nearly every other year since 1993 when he and his family migrated to Australia, where the chirpy professor was now a permanent resident, and his wife and daughter citizens.
“The real worry was that they would formally arrest me on the charge of violating state secrets.”
What Feng had not expected on this March trip was that he himself would be subjected to hours of interviews over ten days by agents of Chinese state security. They had followed him after a first round of interrogation in the southern city of Kunming and announced their intention to continue questioning the China specialist after Feng’s trip took him eastwards to Guangzhou. The operatives resumed their task, ranging widely across a variety of subjects – some of which, the 56-year-old assistant professor at the University of Technology in Sydney admits, surprised him.
Now, as Feng walked through the airport, he believed all of that was behind him. Which is when he was stopped, to be told he was going nowhere. In fact, Feng was blocked from boarding Australia-bound flights on two occasions until, on April 1, after considerable international media attention to his unfortunate circumstances, he was permitted to return home. It was the first time in Feng’s history of travel between his adopted Australian home and the country in which he was born that an attempt had been made to restrict his exit.
Feng is a man given to laughter and one-liners. Before finally leaving China, he described his circumstances as “one of life’s little accidents”. Now back in his tiny academic’s office at UTS, he is constrained from discussing the details of what went on in the hotel rooms used by Chinese agents to intimidate their target. He does say, however, that this encounter with the Chinese state security apparatus was distinctly different from Feng’s previous visits when its operatives made their presence felt. In the past, recalls Feng, “they would be very polite – invite me to a tea table or a private room for a ‘friendly conversation’”. But this time, Feng says, with uncharacteristic gravity, “it was a very serious interrogation”. He admits to being afraid of one particular possible conclusion.
“In the old days, if I was doing work as an academic it could be tolerated... but now they no longer tolerate this.”
“The real worry was that they [would] formally arrest me on the charge of violating state secrets. If they did that, it meant I would be isolated from the outside world – no access to [a] lawyer, no access to family members. And they could torture me...” Feng recalls that at the end of the process: “They asked me to have a lie detector test, and I refused.”
It was “national security” that was ominously invoked at the time, by a Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman, as the reason for the Australian resident’s enforced stay in China. “In the old days, with my connections,” says Feng, “if I was doing [work] as an academic it could be tolerated… but now they no longer tolerate this.”
Xi Jinping, hailed at his elevation to the Chinese presidency, as a breath of liberal fresh air, has overseen a dramatic narrowing of citizens’ freedoms and a merciless crackdown on dissent.
A factor in the line drawn under official tolerance of Chongyi Feng’s activities is that the academic’s research centres on the very issue causing the regime a deal of pain: the activism of Chinese human rights lawyers. In 2015, the year Feng began his Australian Research Council project, China jailed 300 lawyers. In the past, Feng points out, “they [the government] targeted Falun Gong or underground Christians, or other groups of dissidents. But now they focus on human rights lawyers... [as their] primary dissident target”.
“I owe my sister life”, Feng says, swallowing hard with emotion, “because [the family] needed to feed me first.”
Feng’s research picks directly at the sore, examining the rights defenders’ “suffering, resistance, and political ideas”. Some of the imprisoned lawyers have been in gaol for more than a year without legal representation, Feng says, and “some of them [have been] very close friends of mine over two decades”.
The professor’s projection of the worst that could have befallen him is an educated assessment in more ways than one. Not only has Feng spent his adult life studying the development of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist state, he has lived through some of the country’s great tumult. His experience has turned him into an uncompromising critic of the Chinese one-party state. Feng warns Australia to be vigilant as President Xi Jinping promotes himself worldwide as a new brand of modern Chinese leader, while behaving like a cutthroat autocrat at home.
Chongyi Feng was born in 1961, the last year of the Great Famine, and near the end of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. He took his first breath in very remote countryside in the southern Chinese province of Hainan. One of Feng’s two older sisters died of hunger. “I owe my sister life”, Feng says, swallowing hard with emotion, because [the family] needed to feed me first.”
Estimates of the number of victims of the famine, which ravaged the Chinese in 1959-61 range across an almost impossible-to-comprehend spectrum. The little girl’s lost life—Feng never knew her name—was just one of between 20 and 43 million lives sacrificed to the regime’s planning disasters, abetted by nature’s own cruelty.
Feng’s grandfather was a landowner—a class curse after the Communists seized power. By the time of Chongyi Feng’s birth, and thanks to the fast talking of Feng’s wily mother, the family had been reclassified by local cadres from ‘broken landlord’ (after the family property had been disposed of) to ‘poor peasants’. “My father was so grateful to my mother”, says Feng. Her intervention meant that Feng had the great fortune to be born into an officially designated poor peasant family. “That’s a good class origin”, says Feng, smiling broadly.
“We knew that we were not doing the right thing in the eyes of the Party...”
As the diminutive academic tells it, he inherited some of his mother’s boldness rather than the timidity and modesty characteristic of his father. He points out mischievously that he was the first in the family to “turn red” since it became clear to Feng at school in rural Hainan that the Party held the key to everything. The only way to assume the role of class monitor was to first join the Communist Youth League. “It helped me a lot”, says Feng, contrasting his own advancement with that of a second older sister who, taking their father’s advice to steer clear of politics, had been expelled from school during the Cultural Revolution, and banished by the regime to work in the fields.
Nevertheless Feng did not convert Party membership into the cast iron allegiance demanded of cadres. Instead he augmented the study of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism with the clandestine reading of “bad books”. Feng recalls spending many hours in a school office behind closed doors in the company of an older female Communist co-conspirator. Together they pored over the works of, among others, Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. The two Youth League members were intrigued by the lives of Anna Karenina and Hugo’s Jean Valjean. The rebels even tore out some of the book covers, replacing them with covers of “good books”, sanctioned by the Party.
“In a sense, we were deliberately doing something bad. We knew that we were not doing the right thing in the eyes of the Party… From a young age, if you were a good boy”, remembers Feng, “you needed to model yourself on strong workers, or fighters - very strong, very brave against the class enemy. But all these books were so sentimental. The lives [of the characters] became what could have been termed ‘decadent’. So you had a different world in terms of the ideological map… This was obviously a deviation from the official ideology.”
Feng sees himself as lucky. In an isolated area with very poor “book knowledge”, he was singled out for special favourable attention by teachers punitively dispatched to the countryside as a result of having landlord family backgrounds like his own. He was privileged, he says, with a “special education beyond the curriculum”. Feng believes that as a consequence, he was the only one of the school’s 240 graduates to pass entrance exams to university – one of the Chinese universities, which had reopened after the black years the Cultural Revolution.
“For one decade when I was at university, there were all sorts of opportunities in the air.”
Feng was able to study his chosen subject of history during what he calls the “golden age” of the 1980s. University life was an “intellectual intoxication” for him. “The Chinese, including [members of] the ruling party suffered so much from the madness of the Cultural Revolution”, says Feng, with vehemence. “At that time, at least within the ruling elite, there was a liberal, democratic wing that wanted to open China to the outside world… So we had two parallel intellectual lives. One was to learn the official narrative, not only the history, but also Marxist philosophy, Marxist politics, Marxist political economy; in the meantime we were [also] exposed to all the bad, decadent, capitalist and bourgeois influences… We had a lot of contradictions in [our] heads.”
Feng likens the time to 60s Czechoslovakia when the hunger for freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies during the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ took hold. “For one decade when I was at university”, says Feng, “there were all sorts of opportunities in the air.” Indeed in 1982 the liberal surge gave birth to a new Chinese constitution, offering protections for a wide range of citizens’ rights including: freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of religious belief, and equality before the law. Feng has made a study of the effects of the introduction of thousands of Western-style laws, and the birth of a generation of lawyers versed in them.
A CERTAIN LORD Ye is the subject of an ancient Chinese legend. As the story goes, Lord Ye loved dragons so much that he adorned his entire home with dragon drawings and carvings. A real dragon residing in heaven was so impressed he decided to pay Lord Ye a visit on earth. When the man sighted the real beast, he fled in terror.
By Feng’s reckoning, this is a parable which applies also to the Chinese regime and its reaction to the freedoms written into the constitution in the “golden” 1980s.
Feng says that three decades on from the reformist era, one of its most consequential fruits – trained lawyers prepared to defend China’s citizens against the state itself, is the dragon the regime now fears, and seeks to put down.
The lawyers in the government’s sights have “a very good command of legal provisions,” asserts Feng. “They have a genuine connection with the huge population who are wronged by the party state – the millions and millions of them who’ve been wronged...”
“You’ve got poisoned air, poisoned water, poisoned soil – and poisoned hearts.”
Sitting at his paper-laden office desk, under an old photograph of himself amid a gathering of Communist Party reformers in Beijing, he says the members of the party elite “have turned the clock back. Just like Xi Jinping, the new leader, they now want to dismantle the legal institutions, the legal arrangements that have been created over several decades.”
Chinese citizens have chosen to be “creative” protesters, says Feng. Mobilisation through social media networks can bring thousands, even tens of thousands, onto the street for a single event. “They are not allowed to have demonstrations”, he says, but they do get the message out: “‘Please can we just have a walk, have a stroll, in the square?’” Although official numbers are no longer released, Feng claims such “mass incidents”, (technically defined as planned or impromptu gatherings occurring as a result of “internal contradictions”) take place at a rate of 500 per day throughout China.
The environment, or rather rage against the state of it, galvanises much protest. “The environmental damage has reached such a level that you cannot ignore it anymore”, says Feng. “You’ve got poisoned air, poisoned water, poisoned soil – and poisoned hearts”, he says, touching his own. It threatens [even] bare existence if you don’t do anything about it.” And the condition does not recognise class since “the wealthy and powerful also breathe in that air.”
CHONGYI FENG’S VILLAGE at the base of a hill, known as Mount Golden Cow, was haunted by ghosts. At least that’s what old people living on Mount Golden Cow used to tell him, when Feng was a boy. His grandmother made him laugh with stories about his grandfather, a government official in old pre-Communist China, who sometimes wandered, lost, on the hill at night.
These days Feng is still sensitive to the presence of ghosts. His hopes of witnessing first hand the development of a new liberal China expired when pressure from the Party made his Chinese academic life unbearable during two years of “very skilful persecution”. Arriving in Australia in 1993 and becoming a permanent resident, Feng says, “changed my life”. The academic, who turns out a battery of papers and articles in both Mandarin and English, watches Chinese government influence grow in his Australian home with unease. He puts the number of organisations actively promoting the Chinese government line in Australia at over three hundred. He claims all are vying for favour with the Chinese consulate, which may bestow rewards, including lucrative contracts for state projects or status-enhancing participation at Beijing conferences in the company of high ranking Party officials.
As China watchers Bates Gill and Linda Jacobsen point out in their recently published China Matters: getting it right for Australia, China’s influence-buying and propagandising looms large in Australia. The Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, whose role inside China is to “enforce ‘correct’ thinking”, is also charged with projecting a flattering image of China beyond its borders. A seemingly unexceptional aim until one stops to consider that these efforts are made in the interests of a one-party state. As the authors put it, this “brings Australian and Chinese national interests – and values – into direct contention, challenging fundamentals of the Australian political system such as freedom of speech, the press, and enquiry”.
“Once arrested, there’s not much that can be done. You fall into that security interrogation system and you don’t come out the same person.”
Fate determined that Chongyi Feng found himself in his Chinese predicament at precisely the time that Chinese premier Li Keqiang was touring Australia on March 22-26. Perhaps significantly, the Australian visit, the first by a Chinese Premier in 11 years, and conducted with fanfare, took place in the lead up to a feverishly anticipated meeting in Florida on April 7 between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Donald Trump. Feng boarded his Guangzhou return flight to Australia on April 1, six days before Xi dined at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
John Fitzgerald, a China expert and professor at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, who has known Feng for more than 20 years, admits to being deeply concerned that his friend could have been tortured in China. “Once arrested, there’s not much that can be done. You fall into that security interrogation system and you don’t come out the same person.” He has no doubt about the factors which led to Feng’s flight home.
“I’m confident that the strategic public engagement through the media and through government – particularly through the media – was highly effective”, insists Fitzgerald. “I do not believe that behind-the-scenes private conversations, drawing on relationships between key people, counted for much at all.”
He makes an exception for intervention at “the very highest level”. Fitzgerald says “If the Prime Minister’s office made representations to the Chinese premier Li Keqiang, and if, in turn, representations were made quietly at that level, to President Xi Jinping, then that would have been very effective.” We may never know exactly how “one of life’s little accidents” came to its happy conclusion.
However, the Australian government suffered an accident of its own during the Chinese premier’s Australian visit. An extradition treaty with China, one which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had been at pains to assure the Chinese would proceed, instead fell over. Opposition parties, as well as members of the government’s backbench made it plain they would sink any move to ratify the treaty.
“If you are serious about human rights, about the rule of law, you will never sign that treaty with the current government in China.”
Feng is relieved “because [the treaty] created Chinese authority to fabricate a case to get people like me”. Past Chinese practice highlights the jeopardy, claims Feng. “There are scholars in China who collect historical materials on the Cultural Revolution, or political campaigns, or purges. They [have been] charged with espionage – stealing state secrets – because they visited the archive.”
Underlying the proposed extradition treaty’s exchange of information provisions is an assumption of normal state-to-state relations. In this case, as Feng puts it, Australia would “rely on Communists” to provide information. He pulls no punches, saying the Australian government “regards the Communist autocracy as a normal state, as a normal government".
"It’s not normal… It’s an extremely brutal regime… kind of a machine… that tries to crush people… If you are serious about human rights, about the rule of law, you will never sign that treaty with the current government in China.”
The familiar proposition that economic progress would inevitably bring political liberalisation, says Feng, is “very miserably dead”. The West applauds the gains of the Chinese economy (even as it slows) at the expense of vigilance on the loss of civil liberties.
“If you put [up] the government against the criteria of democracy, or freedom and human rights, the government is a monster… But if you change the criteria to the rate of GDP growth, economic performance or the national pride [to] bully surrounding nations… then the government is marvellous,” Feng says, acidly.
“When I talk about China in the public domain, I make it very clear I talk about China as a citizen.”
He boldly identifies as an “academic activist” who insists on retaining Chinese citizenship despite the amply demonstrated risks. “I don’t want to be accused as a traitor or foreigner who doesn’t understand China, talking about other people’s business. When I talk about, or write about, China in the public domain, I make it very clear I talk about China as a citizen: it’s my country, my people. It’s fully legitimate for me to talk about anything, or to make any criticism whatsoever.”
John Fitzgerald recalls meeting Feng a few years ago, at a Beijing cafe. Both men were conscious of being watched by security services as they talked. While acknowledging that within Chinese intellectual circles Feng would be held in high regard “for his integrity [and] for the quality of his research”, Fitzgerald notes there are limits. “There’s a sort of syndrome of the outspoken intellectual who takes up foreign citizenship surrendering influence in China… I’d say Chongyi’s rightly conscious of that.”
Nevertheless, a quarter of a century in a place leaves its mark. My email requests to Feng invariably return with the opening: “No worries”.
One day, in his office, I ask him whether he believes he will see the collapse of the Chinese Communist autocracy in his lifetime. “I’m working hard on it,” announces Feng, cheerily. “It’s my expectation that it will come sooner rather than later.”