Photo/Illutration A security officer stands guard near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

It is a basic task of any corporate employees representing his or her firm overseas to collect information about that country.

But now, Japanese expats in China are understandably afraid, wondering what activities would be deemed illegal and if they, too, could be suddenly arrested by local authorities for allegedly breaking the law.

Earlier this month, an employee of the Japanese drug company Astellas Pharma Inc., who is stationed in Beijing, was detained on suspicion of spying. This development sent shockwaves through the expat community as this individual was an executive of the local subsidiary of Astellas Pharma and had broad contacts in China where he has been a resident for about 20 years.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated, “This Japanese citizen is suspected of engaging in espionage activities.” However, the ministry has not released any specific information, including the man’s suspected offense.

We ask Chinese authorities to follow fair legal procedures and swiftly allow the detainee to meet with Japanese Embassy personnel, ensuring that his human rights are fully honored.

China’s anti-espionage law came into force in 2014. It may be considered as one of the laws that symbolized Beijing’s transition from an era that prioritized economic progress into the Xi Jinping administration that focuses on national security.

Since the enforcement of the law, 17 Japanese nationals are said to have been detained over allegations of espionage.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry insists that Japan should warn its own citizens and reinforce their education. The problem, though, is that not only are the provisions of this legislation vague, but the manner in which it is enforced is also quite unclear.

China is not the only nation that has an anti-espionage law. Spying is usually assumed to entail systematic gathering of intelligence by foreign national organs, and the Chinese law is primarily based on that assumption.

But since the law also contains provisions on “other spying activities,” concerns were raised, at the time of its enforcement, that it was open to broad interpretation.

The Japanese citizen who was detained earlier this month must have had extensive relations with China’s central and local governments, research organs and state corporations. Did his exchanges with such parties invite suspicion? Or perhaps some of the Chinese citizens he had contacts with happened to be under investigation, and he was suspected of some kind of involvement? The truth remains hidden.

Because the situation lacks transparency, employees of Japanese firms in China are understandably nervous. In the same vein, the Japan headquarters of these companies are bound to be considering the risks of operating in China.

These factors will throw cold water on Japan-China relations in general, and the impact cannot be overlooked, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control and bilateral personal exchanges are starting to resume.

We urge both Tokyo and Beijing to keep their communication channels open and work together to resolve problems.

While China has a duty to protect the secrets of its public organs, it also needs to explain in detail the types of activities it deems illegal. And we also believe China should clearly stipulate its rules for relationships between the government and private businesses.

It is a huge loss for China that foreign businesses have raised their guard, just when China should be luring foreign capital in an effort to stimulate the economy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 29