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

The arrest of Chinese-Australian author and democracy promoter Yang Hengjun has triggered an overdue but welcome change in attitude by Canberra towards the fate of Australians effectively kidnapped by Beijing’s authoritarian government.

It’s probably wishful to think that Yang, who was originally detained in January 2019 on spying charges, will be released because of this change. But there is another goal here: making sure that accusations of spying are comprehensively denied at the highest levels in Canberra. In that way Beijing should at least give a second thought to treating any other Australian in such appalling fashion.

As Crikey has noted, Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been unusually direct in her criticism of China over Yang’s arrest. She has baldly stated that Yang is not an Australian spy and has all but said that he has been at least mistreated, if not tortured:

“Our post is continuing to advocate with Chinese authorities to ensure that he is detained in a manner which is in accord with international obligations,” she noted. The methods of Chinese interrogators are well documented and breach many international norms.

For too long, Australia’s diplomats in both Beijing and Canberra have peddled a softly, softly approach to Australians detained by Beijing for either dubious — or as in Yang’s case, utterly spurious — reasons. 

There has been a long string of Australians locked up in China after business disputes either at the national level or at a local level, where foreign businesspeople have crossed local Communist Party officials. These include Rio Tinto iron ore salesman Stern Hu, Guangzhou-based business people Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou, and Shandong investor Edward Du. All did significant jail time.

Yang’s case fits somewhere in that narrative, albeit that the current frisson between Canberra and Beijing is more overtly political than it was when Hu became the figurehead for the battle over iron ore prices between Beijing and the mining sector. That stoush was eventually won by the big miners despite Hu’s imprisonment. 

Yang was originally detained for what appears to be a combination of an obscure domestic political imperative, perhaps related to the fact he once worked for the Chinese diplomatic apparatus, as well as being a particularly outspoken and popular exponent for political change in China.

Lowy Institute China program director Richard McGregor is spot on when he says that Yang’s case has been amplified by the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Canberra. He added that while Yang’s detention may have started as personal it has become part of the broader Australia-China narrative.

For Beijing, the case acts as a warning to both Chinese-Australians and Chinese residents of Australia (such as academic Feng Chongyi who was detained for a week in 2018) that they are not free to speak out against the party. It’s also more generally a warning to any Australian businesspeople, journalists, academics or advocates that they could be plucked by plain clothes police on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai. 

The truism remains that business and politics cannot be separated in China, and indeed in most other places in developing Asia where Australia does most of its business. 

And yet, for all the hideousness that Yang has suffered — and will suffer — messages from Yang sent via Australian consular staff were telling: “An investigation officer (from the secret Ministry of State Security) told me that Australia was small and wouldn’t care about me. He said Australia was dependent on China for its trade and economy, and Canberra wouldn’t help me, let alone rescue me. He said Australia wouldn’t help because I am not white. This is nonsense. He was wrong.”

Now that it has taken a stand, Canberra can say that Yang is right — though this may not have been so in the past. And China has failed, for now, to use a human hostage in its efforts to try and peel away a member of the Five Eyes intelligence network from their security-centric stance against Beijing.

That is a problem for the Chinese system where the desired result is for their target to put his or her signature, coerced, where they are told. And for once, Canberra has not stood by mutely while the rights of Australian citizens have been shredded.

It’s tough and costly win, but a win it is.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey