Australia urges China to treat detained writer fairly

Australia's foreign minister on Thursday called for "further clarification" about the detention of Chinese-Australian author Yang Hengjun and urged that he be treated "fairly."

The appeal came as China's foreign ministry confirmed Yang was being held "because he is suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endanger China's national security."

Yang was seized shortly after flying into the southern city of Guangzhou from New York last week.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australian diplomats met with Chinese officials in Beijing on Thursday to discuss Yang's detention and seek an explanation of the possible charges against him.

"We will continue to make representations to China to make sure this is dealt with transparently and fairly," she said.

She also said there was "no evidence" to support speculation that the 53-year-old's detention was part of a backlash against Canada's arrest of a Chinese telecommunications executive last month.

Read more: Have China-Australia ties reached a new low?

Canadian arrests

Tensions have risen in recent weeks after China's detention of two Canadians, a former diplomat and a consultant. Those arrests were widely seen as retaliation by Beijing for the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport on December 1. She is accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.

Ties between China and Australia have also been strained by Canberra's decision to block Huawei from rolling out its 5G wireless network over security concerns.

Feng Chongyi, Yang's friend and an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney, said he had warned the writer not to travel to China.

"I tried to persuade him not to go. I didn't think it would be safe for him because of the situation with Huawei but he believed that he would fine as he had been there so many times," Feng said.

Four days later

The Australian government was alerted to Yang's disappearance when family and friends said they hadn't heard from him since Friday. Defense Minister Christopher Pyne, who began an official trip to China on Thursday, said he was disappointed Beijing took four days to inform Canberra about the author's detention.

"He's being held in residential surveillance, which we would normally describe as home detention ... my understanding is it's in Beijing," he said, adding that he intended to raise the case in his meetings with Chinese officials.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the situation was "very concerning."

"This is not the way relations between our two countries should be conducted, at all," he said.

Read more: China and Australia compete for influence in the Pacific

Critical voice

Yang, a spy novelist and influential commentator, worked as a Chinese diplomat before becoming an Australian citizen in 2000. He has been based at Columbia University in New York since 2016.

He was a speaker at DW's Global Media Forum in 2009, where he discussed his concerns over internet censorship in China.

"Every blogger is a modern-day Tiananmen Square," Yang said at the forum in Bonn. "The Chinese authorities have continued to increase Internet censorship over the last few years — even with the support of western companies."

While he has voiced critical opinions about the Chinese government, he is not seen as a radical dissident. In 2011, he went missing for several days while traveling in China. Two sources familiar with the case said that he had been detained but agreed to say he was unwell when he resurfaced.

Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University's National Security College, said Yang's detention was a signal that all democracies "are in for a period of sustained tension with China where the safety of our nationals in China simply cannot be assured."

nm/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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