China Accuses Liberal Columnist of Espionage After a Lunch With Diplomat

BEIJING — A high-ranking editor at a Chinese Communist Party newspaper who often wrote liberal-leaning commentaries is expected to stand trial for espionage in Beijing, after he was arrested while eating lunch with a Japanese diplomat.

The editor, Dong Yuyu, was a columnist and deputy editor of the editorial section at Guangming Daily, one of the party’s major newspapers. For decades, he had routinely met with foreigners, including diplomats and journalists, in part to inform his own prolific writing. But now the authorities are eyeing those interactions as proof that he was working as a foreign agent, potentially for Japan or the United States, according to Mr. Dong’s family.

In the decade since China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, took power, he has encouraged and at times outright exhorted suspicion of foreign and especially Western countries, which he has cast as bent on undermining China. At the same time, he has virtually eliminated the space for liberal views like Mr. Dong’s — in part by depicting them as another symptom of foreign meddling.

The relatively liberal Chinese publications where Mr. Dong once published, in addition to writing for his own employer, have been gutted. Chinese journalists have been barred from writing for overseas publications; previously, Mr. Dong had contributed several articles to The New York Times’s Chinese website.

It is not clear whether Mr. Dong, 61, was targeted for his liberal views, his contacts with foreigners or both, according to his family members, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. They said the only evidence presented thus far has been his contacts with foreign diplomats and overseas academic fellowships he received.

“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 a statement. “The message seems to be that foreign contacts are taboo.”

Mr. Dong was detained on Feb. 21 last year, while meeting a Japanese diplomat at a hotel restaurant in central Beijing. The diplomat was also detained — an incident that prompted protests from the Japanese government, which accused China of violating international standards on diplomatic immunity. China said, without providing evidence, that the diplomat had been engaged in activities “inconsistent” with his work.

The diplomat was released after several hours. Mr. Dong, however, was held for six months in a murky form of secret detention, then formally arrested. Last month, he was indicted.

It is not clear when he will stand trial. Charges related to national security are shrouded in secrecy, with trials held behind closed doors. Espionage can carry a prison sentence of 10 years or more.

Mr. Dong began working at Guangming Daily in 1987, after graduating from the prestigious Peking University law school.

He had long been interested in promoting the rule of law and an independent judiciary, his family said — topics on which the government in earlier decades had allowed public debate.

He wrote a piece encouraging the government to offer more loans for poor students, which won an award from the All-China Journalists Association. In 2012, in a piece for The Times, he worried that the government was overly focused on economic growth, overlooking pollution and other issues.

In a 2013 review of the Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar’s history of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Dong criticized the party’s portrayal of the decade of chaos and bloodshed, which had been led by Mao Zedong, as the work of a few bad actors.

“No matter what internal criteria are used to divide a political party into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ these people all represent the entire party in formulating and implementing policies,” he wrote in a liberal history journal. “Therefore, this party must also take political responsibility for the consequences of these policies.”

Mr. Dong won a Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard University in 2006. He also was a visiting fellow at Japan’s Keio University in 2010, and a visiting professor at Hokkaido University in 2014.

But the comparatively more open environment at the time ended with Mr. Xi’s ascent. In 2017, an investigation of Guangming Daily by party authorities labeled the 2013 book review “anti-socialist,” and he was threatened with demotion, Mr. Dong’s family said. Mr. Dong was also not a party member, putting him in the minority at the paper.

Still, he continued to write. In 2018, under a pen name, which is common for opinions writers at Chinese publications to have, he wrote a widely read critique of local officials in Jiangxi Province for destroying coffins in a campaign to promote cremation.

And his audience was not only domestic, but also included a community of foreign scholars, journalists and diplomats eager for insight into China’s often opaque political and social landscapes. In an open letter in support of Mr. Dong, released on Monday, some of them said he was an “excellent ambassador for China” who had always been transparent about their engagements, scheduling meetings in public places.

Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman fellowship, said in an email that “any speculation that his journalism fellowship offers evidence of espionage is ill-founded.”

Mr. Dong’s role as an “interpreter” of China had become even more important — but also riskier — in recent years, said John Kamm, the founder of the U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation, which works to free political prisoners in China. “This is a loss for understanding between China and the outside world,” he said.

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