Australians living in and travelling to China may be arbitrarily detained, the Department of Foreign Affairs has warned as the relationship between the two countries deteriorates.
The upgraded travel advice on Tuesday follows a similar warning for Hong Kong last week after Beijing implemented sweeping new national security laws designed to prevent and punish attempts to undermine the Chinese state.
DFAT on Thursday told up to 100,000 Australians living in Hong Kong and those planning on travelling to the Chinese territory that new laws could be interpreted broadly. Residents have been warned by Hong Kong police that pro-independence chants, flags and as of Tuesday – blank pieces of paper raised in defiance – could be in violation of the new legislation.
“You can break the law without intending to,” the department said. “The maximum penalty under this law in Hong Kong is life imprisonment.”
China maintains the new Hong Kong laws are necessary to put an end to 15 months of protests over Beijing’s increasing influence in the former British colony and restore business confidence. Already strained bilateral relations between Australia and China have declined further during the coronavirus after trade strikes on beef, barley, students and tourists followed Australia’s calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 and its public concerns over the future of Hong Kong.
There are few Australians flying to China or Hong Kong under coronavirus travel restrictions, but the broader travel warnings are set to spark concerns in the business community as they look to quietly reset relations with Australia’s largest trading partner and start sending executives back into Shanghai and Beijing.
“Authorities have detained foreigners because they’re ‘endangering national security’,” DFAT said on Tuesday. “Australians may also be at risk of arbitrary detention.”
Chinese state media outlet the Procuratorial Daily reported on Tuesday that China had launched a dedicated political policing unit to maintain social stability and crackdown on infiltration, subversion and sabotage.
Australian-Chinese academic Yang Hengjun was indicted on espionage charges in March after being imprisoned for 14 months. Canadian businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were also charged with espionage in June after Canada detained Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou over allegations the company violated US sanctions on Iran.
Beijing police on Monday surrounded and arrested a prominent critic of China’s President Xi Jinping, Xu Zhangrun, after he accused the party of “emboldening deception” at every level of government during its handling of the coronavirus.
The former University of Melbourne legal expert is at least the fourth high-profile critic of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to be detained since the beginning of the pandemic.
By Eryk Bagshaw