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China prevents Sydney academic from flying home

China has prevented an academic critical of its growing influence in Australia from travelling home to Sydney, casting a shadow over Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to the country.

Feng Chongyi, a Chinese citizen who teaches at University of Technology Sydney, was halted from boarding at least two flights from China to Australia this weekend. Mr Feng is a permanent resident of Australia, which means he does not hold an Australian passport.

By blocking his return, Chinese authorities have kept him out of Australia during Mr Li’s visit, which has provoked a debate over the political cost to Australia of its tight economic ties with China, its largest export market. During the visit, Mr Li warned his hosts against siding with the US to the detriment of China’s interests.

At the same time as Prof Feng was being prevented from returning to Sydney on Saturday, Mr Li was attending an Australian rules football match with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The case “touches on values — academic freedom and freedom of speech — and on the value of free and open inquiry for getting Australia’s relations with China right,” said John Fitzgerald, a professor at Swinburne University and friend of Mr Feng’s.

Li Keqiang, left, and Malcolm Turnbull watch an Australian rules football match in Sydney on Saturday © EPA

Michael Keenan, Australia’s justice minister, said on Sunday the government had been in touch with Mr Feng’s family and had raised the case with the Chinese government.

“We’ll continue to monitor the situation and remain in contact with Chinese authorities about it,” Mr Keenan told reporters in Perth.

UTS confirmed on Sunday that Prof Feng “appears to have been prevented from leaving China over the past few days” and said it was “in contact with the relevant government agencies in the hope that the matter can be resolved”.

Australia has tried to balance its economic interests in Asia with its cultural, political and military ties to the US. But large Chinese land and infrastructure investments, combined with a growing immigrant community and rising housing prices, have combined to sour the public mood against the relationship with China.

Beijing is pressing Canberra to ratify an extradition treaty that would ostensibly enable it to target corrupt officials who have fled to Australia amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption but could also allow the Communist Party to request repatriation of political dissidents. Meanwhile, Canberra is concerned about the cases of 14 employees of Crown Resorts — the gaming company controlled by Australian billionaire James Packer — who remain in detention in China following their arrest in October.

The Chinese embassy in Australia has been particularly open about rallying Chinese students and recent immigrants on China’s behalf, a trend Mr Feng has vocally opposed. The embassy provided flags, banners and food for Chinese students who greeted Mr Li in Canberra, where he signed a deal to further open Chinese markets to Australian beef exports.

Mr Li impressed upon his hosts the benefits of Chinese investment, but also warned against siding with the US against China.

“We don’t want to see (Australia) taking sides, as happened during the cold war,” he said in a speech to parliamentarians and business leaders.

Shortly before Mr Li’s visit, controversy flared over an attempt to align an Australian fund to develop its remote north with China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, an initiative to develop infrastructure and political ties from Europe to the Pacific.

Chinese money flowing into Australia’s Chinese-language media, Australian universities and even Australian political parties has also raised concerns over Chinese influence. 

For its part China has been irked by Australia’s support for the US position in the South China Sea, most of which China claims. 

Twitter: @HornbyLucy

Via FT