China says Australian writer held on suspicion of endangering state security

Mr Yang Hengjun had returned to China from New York late last week and was due to catch a connecting flight to Shanghai with his wife and daughter, but he never made it through security,
Mr Yang Hengjun had returned to China from New York late last week and was due to catch a connecting flight to Shanghai with his wife and daughter, but he never made it through security, PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – Chinese authorities are holding Australian writer Yang Hengjun in Beijing on suspicion of endangering state security, China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday (Jan 24).

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters that Australia was officially notified when Yang was placed under “coercive measures” - a euphemism for detention. Yang’s rights and interests were being protected in accordance with the law, Hua said.

Yang's lawyer told Reuters earlier on Thursday that the writer is being held on suspicion of espionage.

Detained last week when he arrived in the southern city of Guangzhou, Mr Yang Hengjun is in residential detention at a designated location in a case being handled by the ministry of state security, his lawyer, Mr Mo Shaoping, told Reuters.

Australia will press China to address the detention of the dual-national writer “transparently and fairly”, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, with embassy staff to seek an explanation from Chinese officials at a meeting in Beijing on Thursday (Jan 24). 

Officials in Canberra confirmed earlier on Thursday that Yang, an author and former Chinese diplomat who is now an Australian citizen, had been detained shortly after he flew into the southern city of Guangzhou from New York last week.

There has so far been no comment from China about Yang.

“Our embassy in Beijing will meet with Chinese authorities this morning to seek further clarification of the nature of this detention and to arrange consular access at the earliest possible opportunity,” Payne said in an emailed statement.

She separately told reporters in Sydney there was no evidence to suggest Yang's detention was linked to the high-profile arrests of two Canadians.

Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne landed in Beijing on Thursday for previously scheduled talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, and other senior officials.

Later on Thursday, Pyne said Yang is in "residential" detention in Beijing.  

“We would describe it as home detention but, as Mr Yang doesn’t have a home in Beijing, I assume he’s being held in a similar kind of situation, as opposed to being held in prison,” Pyne told reporters in Beijing.

“My understanding is it’s in Beijing,” he said. 

Tensions between China and some parts of the West have been heightened since two Canadians, a diplomat on unpaid leave and a consultant, were arrested in China on suspicion of endangering state security. 

Those arrests were widely seen in the West as retaliation by Beijing for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei Technologies executive, in Canada on Dec 1. She is accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.

The Australian government was first alerted that Yang had gone missing after friends said he had not been reachable for several days.

Australia joined international condemnation of the arrest of the two Canadians but Yang has long been in the sights of Chinese authorities. He has criticised what he described as Chinese interference in Australia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissent since coming to power in 2012, with hundreds of rights lawyers and activists detained. Dozens have been jailed.

 
 

Dr Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney, told Bloomberg News on Wednesday he spoke with contacts at the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China's spy agency, and he believes Mr Yang is being held there in Beijing.

The ministry has been in the global spotlight in recent months amid tensions between the US and China.  MSS agents detained the two Canadians in China, sparking a diplomatic feud. It has been involved in high-profile detentions of foreigners and has put dissidents under house arrest without criminal charges.

Dr Feng, who researches human rights, said pressure on the global Chinese diaspora has escalated in recent years. 

Mr Yang went missing during a 2011 trip to China, but resurfaced days later, describing his disappearance as a “misunderstanding.”

But his current detention comes at a moment of high tension between Western countries and an increasingly muscular Beijing, prompting fears that he may be the victim of a dragnet by Chinese security services targeting foreigners. 

Pyne’s visit was arranged in a bid to repair damaged ties following Australian allegations in 2017 that China was meddling in it domestic affairs. 

Australia’s conservative government has sought to refrain from such public criticism in recent months, although analysts said Yang’s arrest fuels pressure on Canberra to rebuke its largest trading partner. 

“Australia can’t hide from this, it will need to respectfully protect its citizens,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.  “This detention marks the new normal in the bilateral tension, which will be constant low-level tension,” he said.