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

The detention of Chinese-Australian writer and blogger Yang Hengjun has sent ripples of fear through the Chinese-Australian community, the media and parts of the broader business community.

In response, Canberra has decided to use a playbook that has, over the past decade, proven decidedly useless.

The latest annual consular report from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) showed that China is the third-most likely place for an Australian to be arrested despite being only the seventh-most visited country by Australians.

Indeed, Crikey has learned that former ABC China bureau chief Matt Carney suffered several months of harassment by Chinese authorities ahead of his departure after three years in Beijing.

This gels with the annual survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, issued this week, in which the proportion of respondents who described the working environment in China as more difficult than the previous year was 55%, the highest percentage since 2011 when Chinese authorities were in deep (and frankly amusing) paranoia that the “Arab Spring” would spark a “jasmine revolution”.

Yang’s family was last week issued a notice explaining he was under investigation by secret police for espionage but no more details have been forthcoming. Under a Chinese law promulgated in 2012, such investigations have a provision for detention for up to six months without charges being laid. Disturbingly, Yang has not yet been given access to his legal team led by noted Beijing human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping.

Based on comments from the Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, it appears Canberra believes that China will act rationally on this matter.

Rather than demanding that China either release Yang or provide details of his alleged offence, Pyne is trying to distance himself from the matter, trotting out the specious line that we should “let the Chinese justice system run its course”. This is something that almost never works out for the accused.

And according to Cameron Stewart, Washington correspondent for The Australian, a speech by Payne at the National Press Club in the US capital on January 29 “contained not a single word of criticism of China by name. Australia’s concerns about China’s behaviour in the region were airbrushed in a cascade of political correctness or, if one was being harsh, timidity.”

Indeed, one should be harsh. It is timid, arguably craven, given Australia’s relentless focus on trade with China above all else, reflected in the Tony Abbott led-doctrine (of sorts) pursued by Payne’s predecessor, Julie Bishop.

Payne’s is the long-held approach handed to her by the risk-averse dead hand of DFAT, which has lost out badly in the bureaucratic turf wars in Canberra in recent years. As DFAT’s star has faded, the Department of Home Affairs’ — led by the Australian Public Service’s most powerful bureaucrat Mike Pezzullo — has risen.

The say-not-much-and-hope-for-the-best DFAT approach was perfected during the arrest of Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu in 2009 and, in the years following, Guangzhou business people Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou. All were jailed.

The “strategy” begins with ignoring an event — in this case, Yang’s kidnapping — until someone points in public to it. Step two is to assure everyone that it is not such a big deal initially, witness the weasel words of Christopher Pyne — doubtless written by DFAT in Beijing — of pretending that Yang was under house arrest when, in fact, he is in a black-site jail where state-condoned torture is a part of the in-house service.

The next step is to refuse to answer any questions of substance about the case and for the Australian government to advise the families and friends of detainees to keep quiet. In this case, Canberra is being helped by Beijing, which has told Yang’s wife, who is in China but has been told she cannot leave, to keep her mouth shut.

In this, Australia’s approach has differed markedly from Canada’s and suffers woefully in comparison. Canada has urged Beijing to release its captives and, in early January, upgraded its travel advice to China, warning of the threat of arbitrary detentions. Australia, so far, has done nothing.

But, like it or not, Australia is caught up in both the US-China trade war — despite urging by Payne in Washington that the two sides make peace — and the push-back against Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea. Yang’s detention won’t be the last time we see this strategy deployed.