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China-Japan ties chill after China detains Japanese nationals accused of spying

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The last time the leaders of Japan and China met in Beijing, Japan's leader asked China to free several Japanese nationals detained there on espionage charges. The two countries' leaders are expected to meet today while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco. Now, when they do, the topic of detainees is likely to come up again. From Tokyo, NPR's Anthony Kuhn spoke to one Japanese citizen who spent six years in a Chinese prison on espionage charges that he denies.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hideji Suzuki describes himself as a pro-China guy. He's traveled to China more than 200 times, taught at Chinese universities and promoted friendly Japan-China ties. His last visit was in 2016. He finished arranging a symposium and headed to the airport.

HIDEJI SUZUKI: (Through interpreter) Several men were waiting for me, standing and chatting. They asked me, is your name Suzuki? And I said yes. They surrounded me and pushed me into a car.

KUHN: Suzuki was accused of spying. For seven nightmarish months, he says he was detained in what appeared to be a secret prison. When he wasn't being interrogated, he sat on his bed, watched around the clock by two guards in his room.

SUZUKI: (Through interpreter) I asked to see the sun, and so they put me in front of the window for 15 minutes - only 15 minutes of sun in seven months.

KUHN: He says he was later moved to another facility, where conditions were better. Suzuki is among 17 Japanese nationals detained on spying charges since China enacted a new anti-espionage law in 2015. Five are still in detention. Asked about one case in September, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that foreigners in China who break the law will be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAO NING: (Through interpreter) There have been similar cases involving Japanese citizens in recent years, and the Japanese side needs to do more to educate and warn their citizens not to engage in such activities.

KUHN: But some argue that Hideji Suzuki was just not that type.

KUNIHIKO MIYAKE: He is not a professional spy, period.

KUHN: Kunihiko Miyake is a former Japanese diplomat who met Suzuki while stationed in Beijing.

MIYAKE: He's a very naive, in a good sense, Japan-China friendship guy who has been working for the bilateral relationship for decades.

KUHN: Throughout that time, Miyake says, Japan has hoped for friendly ties with its neighbor.

MIYAKE: But it didn't work. So it's time for us to wake up and see the reality. And I think we should be more careful in dealing with the Chinese affairs in the future. I think Mr. Suzuki taught us the lesson.

KUHN: The espionage charges stemmed from a lunch Suzuki had with a Chinese diplomat. The two discussed Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Jang was purged and executed in 2013.

SUZUKI: (Through interpreter) The whole conversation was only about facts that had already been reported in Japan. I asked him, what's this all about? And he said, I don't know. That was it.

KUHN: Suzuki admits that he also met with Japanese intelligence officers. He denies that he was employed by them as a spy, but Suzuki was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail. I asked Suzuki if he felt betrayed by China.

SUZUKI: (Through interpreter) Yes, I do, and I feel it's very regrettable. I wonder what is going on with China.

KUHN: Suzuki criticizes Japanese diplomats for not doing more to free him. Asked about the case, Japan's Foreign Ministry declined to respond to Suzuki's criticism but said in an email that they have and will continue to work for the early repatriation of detained Japanese citizens. Suzuki adds that then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the issue of detained Japanese, including Suzuki, with China's leader Xi Jinping at a 2019 summit in Beijing. He says Xi responded positively, but Suzuki still served his full six-year jail term.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.