At around 4.30pm on Tuesday, officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra were alerted to concerns that Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun may be in the custody of Chinese secret police.
Yang had flown into the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on January 19 from New York, where he has been working as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He planned to fly with his wife, Yuan Rui Juan, and her child to Shanghai.
But Yang did not complete the second leg of his journey.
In the days since, Yang maintained a worrying silence on social media, including Twitter and popular Chinese platform WeChat. Yang is active user of the services — regularly communicating with his tens of thousands of followers — making his absence conspicuous.
After four days, people that knew him were disturbed enough to contact DFAT. The Australian embassy in Beijing was immediately alerted. On Wednesday morning, news broke that Yang was missing and, by that evening, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age confirmed he had been detained.
Sources familiar with the matter say 10 security agents swooped on Yang shortly after he disembarked, while he was in the foreigners’ queue awaiting processing. His wife and her child were detained briefly as well but then allowed to travel to Shanghai.
Yang’s fate underlines the increased risks facing some foreigners travelling in China amid heighted global tensions.
The December arrest in Canada of a prominent Chinese business executive — Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou is accused by the US of fraud and violating sanctions — had led to Beijing’s detention of two Canadians in China.
Since then, Canada’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance – which includes Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain – feared their citizens might be next as Beijing escalated its campaign against Meng’s looming extradition to the US to face trial.
By the time Australian diplomats began seeking answers from Chinese counterparts, Yang’s likely detention was old news in Chinese dissident circles in Sydney and New York.
Yang’s friends were already panicked. They had dispatched their own informal search party, alerting a network of friends, dissidents, academics and journalists about Yang’s predicament.
Those who knew anything in China spoke carefully to those in the network, fearing they were being monitored and could be arrested too.
Prominent Sydney academic and democracy activist Feng Chongyi, who was detained by Chinese authorities almost two years ago, was told by contacts in China that his former PhD student had been taken by the Ministry of State Security. Feng and others close to Yang in Australia were not surprised to hear he had vanished.
Indeed, Feng had warned his friend in early January not to return to China.
Yang’s response was that the fears were overblown and that he’d spent two years lowering the tempo of his blogging to his Chinese followers so he could make the trip back without fear of arrest.
Yang built an impressive online fanbase by writing spy novels and lively posts about Chinese politics and the struggle for reform. He also sounded early warnings about the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in Australia.
But if Yang’s criticism of the CCP had softened, the party’s capacity to take offence had not.
In Xi Jinping’s China, the practice of “disappearing” people, including film star Fan Bing Bing and the president of Interpol Meng Hongwei, has been normalised.
Xi has sought to legitimise these human rights abuses by introducing laws giving the security agencies almost unfettered power to detain people on national security grounds.
After 2013, when the new laws were introduced, these detentions mostly involved Chinese citizens. In April 2017, when Feng was detained for several days by Chinese security officials, experts believed the fact that he was not an Australian citizen may limit Canberra’s ability to advocate for him.
Yang’s Australian citizenship may have emboldened him, but it was no guarantee he wouldn’t be targeted.
From 2009, several Chinese-Australian entrepreneurs were arrested, including Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu. He was jailed for corruption, of which there was some evidence, although politics connected to the multibillion-dollar iron ore market and the Australia-China trade relationship also likely contributed to his incarceration.
Australian-educated investment banker Matthew Ng was arrested and detained in 2010 on the flimsiest of evidence. A former Australian official says efforts by the embassy to help him were fruitless. All the embassy could ultimately do was to provide welfare support for a broken man languishing in jail.
The risk that Western citizens may be arbitrarily detained has escalated dramatically since the arrest of Huawei’s Meng in Canada. Shortly after this, Michael Spavor, a businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave, were arrested in China in what a senior CCP official has conceded is retaliation for Meng’s detention. The pair are still being held, despite protests from Canada, the US, the European Union and Australia.
In a sudden retrial earlier this month, a Chinese court sentenced a third Canadian man, Robert Schellenberg, to death for a drug smuggling conviction, overturning a 15-year prison sentence.
The Chinese actions have raised fears about how willing the CCP might be to use civilians as pawns in its disputes with foreign governments. Following the Schellenberg decision, the Canadian government updated its travel advice for citizens going to China, warning of “arbitrary enforcement” of laws.
As the China-Canada feud intensified in December, CCP-run nationalist newspaper the Global Times said Ottawa should prepare for “the possibility of conflict escalation” and issued a broader warning for Western countries arraying themselves against China.
“In this complicated game, China should focus on the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, especially Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who actively follow the US against China,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
Feng says that among the reasons Yang took his chances in returning to China was his desire to get his new wife and her child visas to live with him in Australia. It’s a grim irony of his predicament: in seeking to find safe harbour for his loved ones outside of China, he risked his own safety.
Feng says he was later told by contacts in China that Yang had been detained by Chinese government security officials before boarding his flight to Shanghai and that his wife and daughter were allowed to fly to Shanghai. (Yang’s former wife and two sons live in Sydney).
It’s not the first time Yang has gone missing. He was arrested — effectively kidnapped — by Chinese authorities in 2011. He later publicly downplayed the incident as a “misunderstanding”, perhaps hoping that doing so would lessen his chance of further trouble with authorities.
On Wednesday morning, diplomats in Beijing pressed Chinese counterparts for information about Yang. One source said they had received little more than shrugs. But by Wednesday evening, DFAT had confirmed Yang was in the custody of Chinese security agents.
“On 23 January the Chinese authorities informed the Australian Embassy in Beijing that they have detained Mr Yang Hengjun,” a DFAT spokesman said.
”The Department is seeking to clarify the nature of this detention and to obtain consular access to him, in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement, as a matter of priority.”
Yang’s case emerged on the eve of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne’s visit to China for official meetings.
China expert John Garnaut, a friend of Yang, expresses his hope that the situation will be resolved swiftly.
“Nobody wants an Australian Michael Kovrig,” he said.
In 2009, Yang spoke to The Age about the black abyss of China’s detention system. He said even foreign nationals supported by their home countries could be swallowed up by the Chinese system. His friends and family are desperately hoping for another “misunderstanding”. If Beijing’s treatment of the detained Canadians is any guide, it is a forlorn hope.