Australian diplomats have visited the detained Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who is being held in residential detention in Beijing under investigation for involvement with espionage.
Australian embassy staff made the consular visit to Mr Yang on Friday afternoon, seven days after he was detained by Beijing’s State Security Bureau, and after his case was raised publicly by the Morrison Government. Australia’s consular agreement with China stipulates access within five days.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne had pressed for embassy staff to be given urgent access to Mr Yang during his meetings with Chinese defence chiefs in Beijing on Thursday.
On Friday, an influential Chinese tabloid dismissed accusations that Yang, an Austalian citizen, was detained as political retaliation against Australia.
The Global Times, a major propaganda tool for the Chinese government with over 1 million readers, published an editorial on the Yang case in its Friday Chinese edition and said it was “ridiculous” to suggest it was politically motivated.
The paper’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, had earlier tweeted: “There is no reason for China to escalate diplomatic tension with Australia now. Plus, Yang has limited influence on China’s public opinion.”
The Global Times is not an official mouthpiece for the Chinese goverment but Hu is close to the foreign ministry and an important part of China’s propaganda machinery. It has led the attack on Canada over the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.
The reference to Yang, who travelled on an Australian passport, restoring his Chinese nationality appears to refer to a controversy in 2015 when a Shanghai scholar claimed online that Yang had accepted an amnesty and pledged loyalty to the CCP. The BBC reported the controversy on its Chinese service in May 2015.
The Global Times editorial said Chinese liberals had accused Yang of “surrendering to the CCP”.
“There are some issues about him that the outside world [finds] hard to understand quickly,” the editorial said.
Yang was not a prominent liberal, and his public writing was unlikely to have caused a problem, but he had been in contact with some people in China, the editorial said.
There were no public indications during Mr Pyne’s two-day visit to China that Yang’s arrest was linked to Australia’s decision to ban Huawei from the 5G network or support for Canada.
Pyne was told by his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe during a meeting that he would seek more information on the Australian’s situation.
Mr Pyne urged Chinese officials to treat Mr Yang fairly and transparently and allow the Australian embassy to give consular assistance to Mr Yang without delay. He is being held at a secret location in Beijing under national security laws.
A spokeswoman for Mr Pyne said General Wei had replied that Mr Yang “would be treated well”.
But Amnesty International’s east Asia research director Joshua Rosenzweig said there was “cause for serious concern over [Yang’s] wellbeing”.
“With no contact with the outside world, Yang Hengjun is at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” he said.
Residential surveillance had been regularly used for activists, human rights lawyers and government critics under sweeping national security provisions in Chinese law.
The type of location can vary from a hotel room to a state security facility, according to human rights group Dui Hua.
A lawyer acting for Mr Yang, Mo Shaoping, says there is no automatic right to a lawyer in Chinese national security cases, and detention with no family contact can last for six months.
Charges are yet to be laid against Mr Yang, who has been held for questioning since arriving in China from New York on January 19.
The China Daily newspaper reported that Mr Pyne had also met General Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, who had said he “hopes Australia will rationally perceive China’s strategic intent and expand practical exchanges and cooperation”.
A brief report on Yang’s detention in China Daily stated China’s foreign ministry had publicly confirmed that he was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endangered China’s national security” and his case was under investigation.
By Kirsty Needham