It’s hard to overstate how much is at stake in the Australian government’s handling of the arrest of writer, commentator and Australian citizen Yang Hengjun in China. A limp response from the government risks not only Yang’s safety, but could also jeopardise much broader goals. It would send a message to Beijing that our commitments to freedom of speech, to international agreements and to our ability to set domestic policy without foreign interference are negotiable.
Yang’s arrest, under the charge endangering national security, fits a pattern of unacceptable and reckless international behaviour by Beijing over recent months. Following Canada’s arrest of an executive at Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Beijing arrested two Canadians for “harm to national security” and re-tried another, upgrading his sentence for drug smuggling from 15 years to the death penalty.
China’s ambassador to Canada later admitted those arrests were an act of retaliation, and the timing of Yang’s arrest can hardly be a coincidence.
Beijing is trying to send a clear message: we are willing to break the rules to punish and coerce countries that get on our bad side.
Beijing’s ire can be invoked even by reasonable domestic policy decisions that are in Australia’s national interests, whether these be securing our critical infrastructure, defending against foreign interference, excluding 5G network vendors who may be subject to extrajudicial directions from foreign governments, or protecting our businesses from economic espionage.
Another possibility is that Yang is being punished for criticising the Chinese government and advocating democracy in China. This would be despite Yang’s friend, outspoken University of Technology Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, insisting he is not considered a dissident, and his own belief that he’d toned down his criticism of the communist regime in recent years.
No matter the reason, or combination of reasons, Yang’s arrest raises the same fears among critics of the Chinese government as the detention of Dr Feng did nearly two years ago, amid a public debate over China’s interference in Australian politics. I certainly won’t be travelling to China any time soon, but for many other Chinese Australians and China scholars it’s understandably a difficult decision to make. While Beijing tends to be more willing to detain foreign nationals of Chinese ethnicity, its arrest of the two Canadians, neither of Chinese heritage, means that citizens of all Five Eyes countries may have to think carefully before travelling to China.
Whatever Beijing’s motivation, it has again blatantly ignored our consular agreement, requiring it to notify Australian officials of the arrest of a citizen within three days and then permit a consular visit in the next two days. This has not happened and perpetuates a pattern of behaviour after Beijing did not inform the Australian government that it had detained Uyghur Australians in its concentration camps in Xinjiang last year.
Continuing to work quietly behind the scenes in disputes with China won’t win Australia any favours and evidence suggests drawing attention to this case will help. For example, Dr Feng credited his own release to the harm that international public outrage was doing to China’s image.
The only option, then, is for the government to raise the case publicly and persistently and show the Chinese government that we will never tolerate hostage diplomacy if the international rules-based order is to mean anything at all. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should follow the United States and Canada in warning of the risk of arbitrary detention when travelling to China. The government should seek public support from allies and partners across the globe, condemn China for repeatedly violating our consular agreement, press for consular access to Yang, and continue expressing concern over this arrest.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has expressed concern over the case and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put it well when he said: “You can’t sugar-coat this … this is not the way in which our relations between our two countries should be conducted—at all.” The Australian government and our diplomats will need to demonstrate a more confident and creative approach to the China relationship, because Yang’s detention won’t be the last.
By Alex Joske
Alex Joske is a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.