Australia-China Huang Xiangmo Chinese lobbyist blocked communist party
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s decision to stand up for the rights of Australian citizens detained in China’s opaque legal system is a long overdue first for an Australian government of any stripe.

The forcefulness of Canberra’s statement on the case of detained Chinese-Australian writer and activist Yang Hengjun, and the equal heft and sharp dismissiveness of China’s official response, underscores a fundamental roadblock in Australia’s relationship with China: that China has no respect for the Australian passport, the Australian legal system or indeed Australia as a nation state. 

In a forthright release last Friday, which brimmed with frustration following five months of diplomatic talks aimed at finding a way to get Yang back safely, Payne said she was “deeply disappointed” after receiving formal notification from Chinese authorities of his criminal detention.

Under the Chinese legal system, it can take up to about six months for charges to be laid using various extensions available to police and prosecutors.

“The Australian government has raised its concerns about Dr Yang’s case regularly with China at senior level,” Payne said. She added that she had twice written to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to request “a fair and transparent resolution to this matter and that Dr Yang be granted access to his lawyers”, but “this has not occurred”. 

Payne said she had asked for clarification regarding the reasons for Yang’s detention and if “he is being detained for his political views, then he should be released”. 

“We will continue to press Chinese authorities for fair and humane treatment, in accordance with international norms.”

Yang was detained by Chinese security on January 19 and is still yet to be charged. His wife Yuan Xiaoliang, an Australian resident but not citizen, has not been permitted to leave China. Yang has been able to see Australian consular representatives once a month, as per Australia’s consular agreement with China, but he has not been permitted to see his attorney, famed Beijing rights lawyer Mo Shaoping.

Payne’s position was met by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs with instant dismissal:

China deplores the statement made by the Australian foreign minister and urges the Australian side not to interfere in China’s lawful handling of the case in any way and stop issuing irresponsible remarks.

Beijing’s “back in your box” message was also a reminder that Australia remains very much on the nose in China due to a number of forceful messages from the Coalition (China is hardly about to differentiate between PMs Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison) and for our ban of Huawei Technologies from developing 5G networks in Australia (we’ve also actively encouraged our Anglophone allies to do the same). 

It is clear that Beijing is keen to extract its pound of flesh for Yang’s pro-democracy views and/or apparent “betrayal” of his former home — he was once part of China’s diplomatic apparatus. This has been exacerbated by lack of regular high-level contacts between Chinese and Australian leaders since late 2017.

Yang’s treatment is hardly unique; it is symptomatic of the rise of greater authoritarian control in China under leader Xi Jinping. His arrest reflects the state’s need for retribution and its ruthless habit of using foreign citizens as political leverage.

There is a string of Australians who preceded Yang. Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu served nine years in prison from 2009 for bribes and industrial espionage. Chinese-born Australian businesspeople Matthew Ng, Charlotte Chou and Edward Du got implicated in the business dealings of corrupt officials and all received significant jail time. There are many others whose relatives have never gone to the media.

As of June 2018 there were 50 Australians in prison or detention in China. There are significant risks for academics who write about China, journalists blithely skipping in and out on tourist visas and foreign students — the latter of whom were warned this week about harsh punishments for wrongdoings.

It is understood that about 30% of the cases are related to business dealings. The latest survey from the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce and Australia China Business Council tells the story.

“There is a notable increase in the rating of China being difficult for doing business (72%). There remains a bias (amongst Australian businesses actually operating in China) that doing business in China is challenging,” last year’s “Doing Business in China” report said. It noted that 45% of respondents flagged tensions in Sino-Australian relations as a top business risk.

For the clear and present danger look no further than Canada, a country which has had three non-Chinese residents arrested in direct retribution in recent months for Canada’s detention of Huawei’s finance chief Meng Wanzhou. In the US, there are widespread reports of businesses both pulling people out of China and making contingency plans for any detention of existing staff inside the country. 

Consider James Packer: someone who positioned himself as one of Australia’s leading China boosters, only to have 18 of his Crown Casino staff detained in 2017. Not only was Crown lulled into a false sense of security by Beijing, it was effectively forced to divest business interests in China.

The days of China being a benign place, cautious of upsetting foreign business, are well and truly over. No one, it seems, is safe; yet DFAT continues to have a soft travel warning on China. What must happen for this to change?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey