BEIJING • Subjected to daily interrogations and blocked from leaving China for more than a week, Australia-based academic Feng Chongyi arrived home in Sydney yesterday, vowing to return to the mainland later this year to complete his research.
Professor Feng, an Australian permanent resident who still holds his China passport, was conducting field interviews for a project on Chinese human rights lawyers and their political aspirations.
"If they wanted to scare me they failed miserably," Prof Feng, a well-known China Studies expert at the University of Technology Sydney, told Reuters.
"I'm not scared of them. I did not do anything illegal."
He said it was "still a mystery" to him why he had not been allowed to leave China.
Lawyers, activists and academics in China are often accused of being in cahoots with foreign organisations trying to undermine national security and stir up opposition to the communist government.
Prof Feng's project, which is partly government-funded via the Australian Research Council, touches on sensitive subject matter for the Chinese government.
The administration of President Xi Jinping has tightened control over practically all aspects of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability.
During that time, China has detained or questioned hundreds of human rights lawyers and other government critics, international rights groups have said. It routinely accuses rights lawyers of collaborating with "foreign hostile forces" to undermine state power.
Prof Feng said his case, as well as interviews he conducted before he was interrupted, showed the space for government criticism or dissent had been tightened further.
He had meetings with what he described as sensitive contacts on a trip to China a year ago and they were incident-free. "In terms of rule of law and human rights, it's getting worse and worse. It's clear their control of Chinese citizens has become harder and harder."
China's Ministry of Public Security and its Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang last Thursday said Prof Feng was being prevented from leaving on "national security" grounds, without elaborating.
Prof Feng arrived in China about a month ago for his work and was first held for questioning in Kunming, the capital of south-western Yunnan province, before being barred twice from boarding flights from Guangzhou last Friday and Saturday, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters previously.
Prof Feng said he was informed on Saturday morning by the state security officers who had been questioning him daily that he was free to leave. He was made to sign a statement pledging not to divulge details of his interrogation sessions as a condition of his release.
The case had prompted the Australian government to intervene, and sparked concern among international academics over the research environment in China.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE