Feng Chongyi works from a small, cramped office at Sydney’s University of Technology, where he is associate professor in China Studies. Hanging on his wall is a photo of him, in 2006, sitting with top liberals and democrats within the Communist Party’s Central Committee. To his right is Zhu Houze, former head of the Central Propaganda Department, and further over on the left is Li Rui, former political secretary to Mao Zedong. 

In those days, Feng was one of China’s rising stars. He was the first student to be awarded a PhD in contemporary history in China.

Today, he is one of the most outspoken dissidents against the Chinese Communist Party. He has been under surveillance by the Chinese government since 1997 and was detained and interrogated by the secret police in China in 2017.

His sin? He wants China to become a constitutional democracy, incorporating elections, rule of law and protection of human rights. 

Feng came to Australia in 1993 as a visiting scholar, then became a permanent resident. “As soon as I accepted permanent residency I became a dissident,” he told Inq

Before the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese government cultivated good relationships with the West and signed on to human rights agreements. In those days, Feng was invited to functions at the Chinese consulate in Sydney and even attended functions organised by the Chinese government’s United Front operations — a party vehicle for winning influential friends and destroying enemies. He was considered an “honourable member” of Australia’s Chinese community. 

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Everything changed following the rise of President Xi Jinping.

According to Feng, the country returned to the authoritarian principles of Mao — increasing social control and surveillance methods on the Chinese population in Australia and overseas. 

In 2017, Feng went to China to talk with human rights lawyers and liberals within the government, as he had been doing for many years. He says he was used to being followed by the secret police and came to regard such surveillance as the cost of doing academic research. But this time he was detained for a week in his hotel room and interrogated. “Who pays you?” they asked him, warning that a long jail term was on the cards.  

Throughout the week their interrogation revealed that not only was Feng under surveillance in Australia, but there were paid informants on the ground reporting on his movements and his meetings, including some with prominent non-Chinese Australians.

In one interrogation session, the police produced a letter from Australia. “I realised from the questions, they had people watching me in Sydney and Melbourne,” Feng said. “I was not surprised. They have always been suspicious of the Chinese democracy movement [in Australia], and they are known to have a lot of informants. Payment to informants is made into bank accounts in China to avoid scrutiny in Australia. These informants are permanent residents and Australian citizens. They are all willing informants, though they may be intimidated to do it. They think it’s their duty.”

The secret police raised the name of another prominent Australian academic. They wanted to know as much about him as possible. They were also very interested in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and asked him about an Australian government adviser, John Garnaut, who worked under Malcolm Turnbull and later co-ordinated a confidential internal report on Chinese government, party influence and interference work in Australia.

In January this year, one of Feng’s former students, 54-year-old journalist and blogger Yang Hengjun, was arrested and charged with espionage in China. “They want to punish him,” said Feng. “I feel very bad. He’s in the criminal detention centre run by the secret police. The first six months [of detention] was a period of terrible, terrible torture. The so-called Residential Surveillance Designated Location is a facility for torture.”

Like Feng, his teacher, Yang abandoned his career as a communist cadre to fight for democracy. 

“I hope the Australian government will push harder. But it’s a political case, motivated by politics,” said Feng.