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Akio Yaita

【#530】China’s Unacceptable Guilty Sentences for Japanese Citizens

Akio Yaita / 2018.07.26 (Thu)

July 23, 2018

     Courts in China’s Liaoning and Zhejiang provinces sentenced two Japanese citizens to 12 and five years in prison respectively in July after they were seized for alleged spying in 2015. As Japan-China relations have been basically improving since Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan in May, the harsh sentences should have come a great shock to their families who might have expected their release through diplomatic negotiations.
     When they were seized, I was stationed as a newspaper correspondent in Beijing and investigated their seizure. I then found that they were an employee of a small enterprise and a former pinball parlor employee who had no access to Chinese state secrets. Chinese judicial authorities apparently attributed the guilty sentences to the Japanese citizens’ contacts with officials at the Japanese Public Security Intelligence Agency. However, Japanese intelligence agencies have no authority or budget to send agents abroad. Chinese judicial decisions branding the two Japanese citizens as spies are extremely questionable.

Rapid rise in branding foreigners as spies
     Eight Japanese citizens were indicted for alleged spying in China by July. Guilty verdicts are expected for the remaining six. As a U.S.-China trade war escalates, Chinese government led by President Xi Jinping is privately hoping to improve relations with Japan. In order to avoid an impression that Beijing has bowed to Tokyo, however, Chinese authorities might have dared to give the detained Japanese citizens such stiff sentences, some analysts say.
     The Xi regime, which has advocated nationalistic slogans such as the “great revival of the Chinese nation,” has focused on preventing foreign values from flowing into China. Being reluctant to see foreigners contacting Chinese people, the government has increasingly branded foreign citizens as spies for indictment.
     When I stayed in Beijing for 10 years, multiple foreigners including American and Australian citizens were also branded as spies. One was indicted for the reason that documents of an unimportant conference given to the person by a Chinese included state secrets. The reason for another was that a military ship was incidentally in a photo taken at a coast. When six Japanese men from a geological survey company in Chiba Prefecture were arrested in March 2017, one reported reason for their arrest was that they had a hot spring exploration machine that can observe underground military facilities. Two of the six were indicted.

Japanese diplomats remaining silent
     Unlike U.S. and Canadian governments that have rescued their citizens seized for alleged spying in China, the Japanese government has been cold to the detained Japanese citizens. “As a judicial process still continues, I would like to refrain from making any comment,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press conference on the day when one of the two convicted Japanese citizens received 12-year prison sentence. “Japan and China should try to prevent the matter from seriously affecting Japan-China relations that are being improved.” The top government spokesman made no protest to the Chinese side.
     Japanese diplomatic authorities have retained a bad habit of refraining from complaining to China. If eight Japanese citizens are indicted for alleged spying in China, the Japanese government should in principle detain eight Chinese agents active in Japan and launch negotiations to exchange the Chinese agents for the Japanese detainees.
     Chinese President Xi reportedly hopes to visit Japan by next summer after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits China. Japanese and Chinese diplomatic authorities are set to step up preparations for Japan-China summit meetings. The Japanese side should give top priority to winning the release of the Japanese citizens detained in China.

Akio Yaita is a deputy foreign news editor at The Sankei Shimbun.