China confirms detention of dissident Australian dual national Yang Hengjun

  • The novelist, former Chinese diplomat and democracy activist went missing soon after he arrived in southern China’s Guangzhou last week
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 11:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 11:27pm

A dissident Chinese-Australian writer has been detained in China, according to Australia’s embassy in Beijing.

Yang Hengjun, a novelist and former Chinese diplomat, went missing on Saturday after arriving in Guangzhou on a flight from New York.

Yet it was not until Wednesday that Chinese authorities informed the Australian embassy that Yang had been detained.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying had said earlier in the day that she was not aware of the case but would ask “relevant departments” about the matter.

In a statement on its website, Australia‘s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was “seeking to clarify the nature of this detention” and obtain consular access to Yang “as a matter of priority”.

Under a consular agreement between China and Australia, Beijing is obliged to tell Canberra of the arrest of any Australian citizen within three days.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier on Wednesday that Yang, an advocate of democratic reform and critic of Chinese influence overseas who holds Australian citizenship, had been detained by state security agents in Guangzhou airport on Saturday, citing an anonymous witness.

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Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney who was detained in China for a week and interrogated by authorities in 2017, said he had argued with his friend Yang about the danger of travelling to China soon before his disappearance.

“He thought politically he’s safe, he would not be targeted by the Chinese authorities,” Feng said, explaining that Yang felt he had toned down his criticism of China in recent years.

Yang’s disappearance has sparked fears that he may be the latest victim in a string of arrests widely seen as punishment for Canada’s detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States.

Australia recently expressed concern about China’s detention of two Canadians, seemingly in retaliation for Meng’s arrest on suspicion of evading US sanctions against Iran.

Earlier this month, Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that the arrests of political analyst Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor had sent a “chill” through the sinologist community.

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On Tuesday, nearly 150 scholars and former diplomats released an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for the release of the two men.

“Of course, he [Yang] has never been welcome by Chinese authorities, but was somehow allowed to survive in China …” said Feng. “The only element that has changed the situation fundamentally is the Huawei case.”

Yang’s friend and journalist John Garnaut described him as “brilliant” and “a courageous and committed democrat”

“This will reverberate globally, if authorities do not quickly find an off-ramp,” he warned.

Yang, who had worked in the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing, wrote a series of spy novels after leaving the country as well as a popular Chinese-language blog.

Once described as China’s “most influential political blogger”, he has gone missing before in 2011 – an experience he characterised as a “misunderstanding” when he resurfaced days later.

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Yang’s arrest is likely to inflame relations between China and Australia, which reached a nadir last year after Canberra passed anti-foreign interference laws widely seen as directed at Beijing.

“Beijing’s actions are making it more difficult for ‘friends of China’ in Australia to defend their softly, softly position,” said Clive Hamilton, the author of Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia. “More and more prominent Australians believe that Beijing is arrogant and bullying, and the fact is that people don’t like to be bullied.”

While closely aligned with Washington in defence and foreign affairs, Canberra is hugely dependent on Beijing for investment and trade. Australia’s exports to China topped A$110 billion (US$78.5 billion) in 2016-2017, about 30 per cent of the total.

Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne is expected to travel to China tomorrow for unrelated talks with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe.

Additional reporting by Jun Mai and Agence France-Presse