Photo/Illutration Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japanese nationals working for companies based in China are treading on eggshells for fear of coming to the attention of Chinese security authorities.

But it’s not because they are doing anything illegal, as far as anyone knows.

It is simply that the Japanese community has been left reeling following the latest detention of a Japanese national in China--in this case a veteran China hand in Beijing--especially after mention was made in some quarters that he could be charged with spying.

The employee, who is in his 50s, works for Astellas Pharma Inc., a major pharmaceutical company. He has worked in China for around 20 years, during which time he served in a high-ranking position not only in the local subsidiary, but also in the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China.

“During a period when a sense of caution toward China is already heightening, this is an act unthinkable for a nation ruled by law against a Japanese businessman who understands China and made various efforts to deepen bilateral exchange through business,” said a former executive with a Japanese company. 

“He never gave the impression of doing anything so dangerous,” said another Japanese business official.

Despite the overriding impression that the man was simply doing his job to the ablest of his abilities, others offered comments that suggested he may have offended his Chinese hosts on occasion.

He was not afraid to give his frank opinion, recalled one individual.

Another former executive noted that the man’s main duties were to gather information from within Chinese government circles and he may have somehow overstepped his bounds.

Other employees working for Japanese companies in China expressed concern that they might be next, largely because China almost never offers a clear explanation for detaining someone, such as in the latest case or in the 16 others of Japanese being detained in recent years.

Ke Long, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, noted that Japanese pharmaceutical companies operating in China do not sell directly to consumers, but are wholesalers to state-owned companies.

“There are many opportunities to come in contact with government officials through the course of work,” Ke said.

He observed that Chinese officials are now especially sensitive about issues related to the novel coronavirus pandemic considering reports in the West that COVID-19 almost certainly leaked from a lab in Wuhan in Hubei province. New pharmaceuticals are another issue, given the domestic upheaval that arose due to extended periods of strict infection-prevention measures.

“Even idle chatter could be perceived as attempts to gain intelligence or spying,” Ke said. “Employees of pharmaceutical companies have to be very careful about their words and deeds when speaking with Chinese government or state-owned company officials.”

In the past, when diplomatic ties between Japan and China worsened, it often resulted in the detention of  Japanese employees in China.

But more recently, lower-level security officials appear to be taking to heart concerns expressed by high-ranking officials on the issue of allowing foreign influence to affect internal matters. The possible diplomatic ramifications from the detention of foreign nationals tend to fall by the wayside in such cases.

Chinese officials have expressed hopes of greater foreign investment as one way to deal with the negative effects of the global COVID-19 health crisis on their economy.

But as one source with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China put it, “There will be no avoiding having more companies and employees become reluctant to act aggressively.”

Noting that Chinese officials have yet to give a clear explanation for the latest detention, one diplomatic source said, “There is growing dismay among Japanese nationals (in China). This is an incident that could have serious effects on the business relationship that is the foundation of bilateral ties as well as on travel between the two nations.”

(This article was written by Akihiro Nishiyama and Masayuki Takada in Beijing and Kohei Kondo and Yuki Kubota in Tokyo.)