The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prominent Chinese journalist faces espionage charges, family says

Chinese journalist Dong Yuyu, seen in an undated photo in Japan, was detained in February 2022. (Family photo)
6 min

Chinese journalist Dong Yuyu, a longtime writer and a Harvard University fellow known for his sharp observations on Chinese society, has been arrested on charges of espionage, according to his family.

The 61-year-old, a friend to many foreign diplomats and journalists, was detained on Feb. 21, 2022, while meeting a Japanese diplomat at the Novotel Xin Qiao hotel in Beijing. His family had kept his detention from the public in hopes that the charges could be reduced or dropped. But last month, the family was notified that his case would be sent to trial, prompting relatives to release the details of his arrest.

Given the high conviction rate of Chinese courts, Dong is almost certain to be found guilty of a charge that carries a penalty of more than 10 years in prison.

A petition calling for Dong’s release has been signed by more than 60 prominent current and former journalists and academics, including Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Matthew Pottinger, a former journalist in Beijing who served as deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration.

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Dong’s case highlights the extreme lengths Chinese authorities are going to sever connections between Chinese citizens and foreigners, seen as a destabilizing force.

According to people familiar with Dong’s case, the charges — which can only be seen by his lawyers — cited Dong’s connections with foreigners. In addition to regularly meeting foreign diplomats and journalists in Beijing, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University from 2006-2007, a visiting fellow at Keio University in Japan in 2010 and a visiting professor at Hokkaido University in 2014.

According to family members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by authorities or Chinese nationalists online, no evidence of any financial or other transactions or monetary benefits has been presented.

“[The family’s] hope was that investigators could understand that his foreign ties were not suspicious but a normal part of his job and a normal interaction between peoples in most parts of the world,” said a statement from the Dong family on Monday.

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The Japanese diplomat whom Dong met was also detained after their lunch and held for hours before being released. The Japanese government later demanded an apology, but China’s Foreign Ministry responded only that the diplomat had engaged in activities “inconsistent with their capacity in China.”

The National Press Club said in a statement released Monday that China should allow such high-level person-to-person contacts. “It makes their country stronger. He has helped the world have a better understanding of China and has brought back with him from Japan and the U.S. a very complete understanding of life in those countries,” it read.

Dong’s arrest has been seen as a sign of how the boundaries are being redrawn during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s third term, as authorities exercise even more control over society following widespread protests decrying the harsh coronavirus restrictions last year.

At the time of his detention, Dong had been working for the Guangming Daily — one of the country’s five major Communist Party-affiliated newspapers — for more than 30 years. (He was three months away from retirement when he was taken away.)

Dong is only the latest journalist to be targeted. Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist with CGTN, the international version of state broadcaster CCTV, has been detained since 2020 on national security charges. Last year, Haze Fan, a reporter with Bloomberg News, was released on bail after more than a year in detention on suspected national security violations.

“There is an ever-tightening noose around Chinese media,” said Angeli Datt, China research and advocacy lead at PEN America, a group advocating free speech. “It’s the [Communist] party occasionally flexing its power to show its total control and to frighten others. Connections to foreigners are sensitive under Xi, as propaganda lately has been characterized by xenophobic narratives.”

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As a young man, Dong participated in the 1989 Tiananmen student protests that were violently put down by the Chinese military. After serving a year of hard labor, he returned to Beijing and was able to keep his job at the paper.

Dong, who remained a liberal thinker and nonparty member, pushed for change within the system. A prolific writer who could be found at his computer most weekends and evenings, he called out companies, government agencies and local governments, and commented on the social issues of the day. He won several Chinese journalism awards and was known to mentor young reporters.

Dong remained clear-eyed about the authoritarian turn his country was taking, and he used his platform at one of the country’s most influential state papers to stand up for citizens. In an article in 2018, he criticized officials in Jiangxi province for taking coffins away from grieving residents as part of a government drive to cut down on land burials. The article went viral, and officials later apologized and pledged to “respect the dead.”

Over the years as he became more well known, he grew more careful. According to people close to him, Dong knew he was being watched and made a point to hold all meetings with foreign contacts in public places in full view of others, including any state security who might be monitoring.

Dong represents a shrinking pool of Chinese intellectuals who help bridge the gap between China and the international community. He was known to be longtime friends with the Japanese ambassador to China and was popular among his Nieman fellowship cohort. A 2012 article of his that was published in the Chinese edition of the New York Times, “I want my son to study in the United States,” still circulates on Chinese social media today.

Eventually, Dong’s liberal views would come back to haunt him. In 2017, he came under investigation for an essay he wrote in 2012, one month before Xi officially came to power, and was branded an “anti-socialist” for his earlier writings. Over the past five years, he wrote less.

In that 2012 essay, published in the journal China Through the Ages, he wrote that constitutional democracy was “the victory of human nature and the choice of human nature.”

“No one is willing to be driven and enslaved by others or the government. No one likes to allow other people or the government to unconditionally take over their matters,” he wrote.