Yang Hengjun
Detained Australian Yang Hengjun. (Image: AP/Zhan min)

China’s authoritarian regime has resumed its outrageous practice of treating Australian citizens who were born in China with the same extrajudicial disregard as it treats its own citizens, with the effective kidnapping of writer and popular online commentator Yang Hengjun, 53, and his family at Guangzhou airport on January 19 as he tried to board a plane to Shanghai.

While his wife and step-daughter — who are Chinese citizens — were eventually able to continue on the planned journey to Shanghai, Yang remains in what Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, who just happens to be in Beijing at the moment, rather incongruously and erroneously described as “house detention”.

Yang was taken into custody once before — also in Guangzhou — in 2011 when he disappeared in China for a few days. Although he later described this detention as a “misunderstanding” (doubtless as part of the deal for his release).

Canberra has seen this scenario many times, yet done nothing to address it. Yang’s original case was one of a string of cases involving Australian-Chinese people, including Stern Hu who served nine years in a Shanghai jail as part of the Rio Tinto bribery scandal that capped off the iron ore price wars between Australia and China. This was followed by Australian Chinese business people Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou who were tried and jailed in Guangzhou, shattering their lives and their families.

Feng Chongyi, a Chinese academic at the University of Technology Sydney who has a track record of being a measured critic of the Xi Jingping regime, was held in his hotel on a visit to China in 2016. Indeed, Feng and Yang are friends, and Feng is reported to have warned Yang against travelling to China, but the writer believed that having toned down his anti-Beijing rhetoric in recent years he was safe.

Crikey understands that Yang was detained by the Ministry of Social Security, the nation’s secret police force, rather than the Ministry of Public Security, which is the regular police.

The reality (as Pyne hopefully now knows) is that such detention centres in China are generally at “black sites” or jails. They are now protected under laws passed in 2013. If, as a growing number of people now fear, he is charged with espionage or similar crimes, he could be held and tortured for up to six months, as Amnesty International warns.

The reasons for Yang’s detention remain unclear. In recent months, Australia has at last found its voice on China’s serial and flagrant human rights violations that have escalated sharply under the increasingly repressive Xi regime.

In an uncommonly forthright presentation to the UNHCR’s regular four-and-a-half-yearly review of China, Australia highlighted the plight of up to 2 million Muslim Uighurs from the north-west Xinjiang province, now locked up in so-called re-education camps.

We must assume that this is the work of Foreign Minister Marise Payne who has fast emerged as almost the inverse of her predecessor, Julie Bishop. Payne is a politician who takes her brief seriously and genuinely seems to cares about the people in neighbouring countries being pummeled by authoritarian government.

Still, Payne aside, Yang is facing a potential ordeal that could well see him eventually tossed in jail after a show trial, under a prime minister who has shown little interest in foreign affairs. Another issue stems from Australia’s Ambassador in Beijing, Jan Adams, who is viewed by some in diplomatic circles as a good trade negotiator but who is out of her depth on more complex strategic issues.

The Australian Department of Defence has been on the front foot on China, revealing plans for a military base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. It is also in the process of the (cack-handed) construction of new submarines, as well as naval vessels designed, primarily, to counter military threats from the Middle Kingdom. 

Australia led the world in pushing back against the installation of equipment by Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies first in benighted National Broadband Network and more recently for Australia’s 5G mobile infrastructure, leading the push by the so-called Five Eyes group of Anglophone countries that has been taken up with gusto by the US.

That resulted in the November 2018 detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei. She remains marooned in Canada where she was pulled out of an airport on the back of Canada’s extradition treaty with the US, which wants to try her for busting sanctions on Iran.

In all likelihood, we will never know the why and when of Yang’s targeting but it doesn’t look good. If China insists on taking things forward in its opaque way, breaching the human rights of an Australian citizen, then Canberra must face down a reality it has been studiously ignoring for the past decade.

Peter Fray

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