The Australian government said on Thursday a Chinese-Australian writer had been detained in China in what a friend suspects is part of a backlash against Canada’s arrest of a top Chinese telecommunications executive.
Novelist and influential online commentator Yang Hengjun was a Chinese diplomat before he became an Australian citizen. Friends say the 53-year-old had been living in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University and had returned to China last week with his wife, Yuan Rui Juan, and 14-year-old stepdaughter.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement Chinese authorities had informed the Australian Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday that they had detained Yang.
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“The department is seeking to clarify the nature of this detention and to obtain consular access to him, in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement, as a matter of priority,” the statement said.
Yang’s friend, University of Technology Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, said he believes Yang is being detained in Beijing by the Ministry of State Security on suspicion of espionage.
The detention comes a month after China’s detention of two Canadians, entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, in what was widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States.
Feng, who has been in contact with Yang’s family and friends, said Yang’s detention was “directly linked to the Huawei case.”
“I see his arrest as the extension of Chinese hostage diplomacy to take him as a hostage to press the Australian government and the Canadian government, American government,” Feng said.
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Feng said he had warned Yang against traveling to China in light of the Canadians’ arrest. Yang had argued that he was safe because he had flown to China several times since taking the university job in New York in 2017.
“I told him the situation had changed. He didn’t believe me. It was a horrible misjudgment,” Feng said.
Feng was detained in China in 2017 near the end of a three-week trip during which he was researching human rights lawyers, and he was questioned by security services for two weeks before he was allowed to return to Australia. He said on his return to Sydney that he was unable to discuss the details of his experience.
Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, had warned after the Canadians were detained that an Australian could be the next victim of “China’s hostage-taking.”
“It’s hard to tell the precise reason for this detention,” Medcalf said. “I think rather it’s a signal that we’re now — not only Australia, but really all democracies, all middle powers — are in for a period of sustained tension with China where the safety of our nationals in China simply cannot be assured,” Medcalf said.
Yang’s detention comes ahead of a visit by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne to China on Thursday. Pyne left Australia on Tuesday for a weeklong visit to Japan, then China and Singapore.
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Pyne said the Australia-China defence relationship was a key component of the broader bilateral relationship.
“The government is committed to maintaining a long-term constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests and mutual respect — China and Australia’s success will go hand-in-hand,” Pyne said in a statement Tuesday.
Yang, his wife and her daughter flew from New York on Friday and arrived in Guangzhou on Saturday, Feng said. Yang was taken into custody at Guangzhou airport and flown to Beijing, while his wife and child were allowed to fly on to Shanghai as planned, Feng said.
The wife, Yuan, flew to Beijing on Sunday after leaving her daughter with family in Shanghai. Yuan was allowed to return to Shanghai on Monday, Feng said.
Another friend, former Australian journalist and China analyst John Garnaut, said Yang was “not only brilliant but extraordinarily popular among the Chinese-speaking world and a courageous and committed democrat.”
“This will reverberate globally if authorities do not quickly find an off-ramp,” Garnaut tweeted Wednesday.
Similar concerns were raised over Yang’s safety in 2011 when he disappeared after calling a friend from a Chinese airport saying he was being followed by three men.
He later explained the matter had been a “misunderstanding.” Yang said he had been unwell and switched his phone off.