Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The fate of convicted Australian drug courier Karm Gilespie, sentenced to death for smuggling methamphetamine in China, sends an ominous message to all Australians in China.

After being held in detention for a stunning seven years, six years beyond what is legal according to the letter of Chinese law (which is often ignored by the authorities as they see fit), it’s impossible to see Gilespie’s swift trial and sentencing as unrelated to the current tension between Canberra and Beijing.

This was underscored with the news that China’s Ministry for Foreign Affiars — rather than security and justice ministries — had taken change of all commentary around Gillespie’s case.

And tensions escalated further last week with Foreign Minister Marise Payne ramping up her crazy/brave campaign against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), accusing it (and Russia) of spreading disinformation, false facts and a climate of fear.

It’s worth noting that Australians in detention/jail in China tend to be Chinese born; the fact that Gilespie is not was clearly meant to drive home the message, since Australians with European backgrounds have generally garnered more media attention that foreign-born nationals.

It also underscored how opaque and capricious China’s legal system can be; there is no presumption of innocence, no concept of due process and –depending on the case — not necessarily any right to either legal counsel or consular visits.

China’s legal system also employs extrajudicial methods including kidnapping, detention in off-site “black” jails, torture including the withholding of critical medication, and the harassment of family members. It goes the extra authoritarian mile by jailing the dwindling rump of human rights lawyers who act as defence lawyers for any and all campaigns Beijing loathes.

It’s now also increasingly clear that China is happy to use foreign nationals as pawns in its diplomatic games, either locking them up or, like Gilespie, bringing them out of years of detention to sentence them to death.

In 2018 Beijing detained two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, in direct retribution for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the finance chief of Chinese technology giant Huawei Technologies, by Canadian authorities owing to an extradition request by the United States. They have since been formally arrested, and last Friday , in a move sure to worry Australian business people in China, were charged with offences that attract sentences of up to 10 years.

After those arrests, a Chinese court sentenced another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, to death on a drug smuggling conviction, in a retrial that overturned a 15-year prison sentence.

Beijing has also shown it does not respect foreign passports, especially those of Chinese nationals who have, for one reason or another, fallen foul of the CCP. This trend has stretched back some decades, but burst into prominence in Australia more than a decade ago with the detention and ultimate imprisonment of four Rio Tinto employees including Chinese-Australian Stern Hu.

Since then there has been a steady parade of Australian business people thrown into Chinese jails, often on trumped-up charges, because they crossed local CCP officials.

“If you’re a former Chinese citizen, authorities may treat you as a citizen and refuse access to Australian consular services. Get legal advice if you’re not sure of your citizenship status under Chinese law,” the travel advisory on China from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) says.

According to information given to Crikey by DFAT, China presently holds 69 Australians in detention and at least 50 (at June 30, 2019 ) in jail. Most of these would be for alleged criminal offences, given that in 2018-19 there were 123 detentions for Australians, up 9% from the previous year. All but seven were criminal cases but only 15 were drug arrests, a figure down 20% from the year before.

Detaining/shooting human beings (firing squad is the form of capital punishment still used in China) is now standard issue in the Chinese diplomatic kitbag.

Responding to Payne’s accusations of disinformation, the Chinese embassy hit back: “In recent days, some Australian media and politicians made baseless accusations of China for spreading disinformation, which is completely rubbish.”

Australia can’t out-propagandise or outspend China, which means all Australians in China are now, whether they like it or not, at greater risk, and it’s time that DFAT updates its travel advisory to make this clear.

Peter Fray

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