After being held in detention for seven months, China formally charged the Australian writer Dr. Yang Hengjun with espionage late last week. During this period, Beijing failed to provide an explanation for Yang’s detention and prevented him from receiving visits from both his lawyers and his family members. He has only been allowed one half-hour visit each month from Australian consular officials. Yang’s initial detention came a month after China arbitrarily detained two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — seemingly in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou in Vancouver. The two Canadians have since been charged with stealing state secrets.
While the charges laid against the two Canadians are designed to put pressure on Ottawa to abandon the proceedings for extradition to the United States facing Meng, the purpose of the charges laid against Yang remains unclear in regard to Australia. Yang was formerly employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, but has since become an advocate for democratic reforms in China, and for Beijing to show greater respect for human rights to its citizens. This is advocacy that the Communist Party (CCP) is particularly sensitive to when expressed by ethnic Chinese who have relocated to Western countries.
Yang’s arrest could be seen as a signal to other ethnic Chinese who are citizens of Western countries that their scrutiny of the Chinese state will come with consequences. With many protests being held in Western cities expressing solidarity with the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Beijing may be attempting to quell any dissent stemming from the foreign Chinese diaspora by placing the seed of doubt in people’s minds that if they openly express their political beliefs they may not be able to visit China for fear of arrest.
The CCP has a tendency to see all ethnic Chinese as subject to their jurisdiction, regardless of what citizenship they may hold. Australia’s current warnings for China makes note of the risks for Chinese-Australians, with Canberra advising: “If you’re a Chinese-Australian dual national, travel on your Australian passport, obtain a visa for China and present yourself as an Australian citizen at all times.” This travel warning may also need to be updated to include the risk of arbitrary detention for Chinese-Australians who may have public profiles.
Upon learning of the charges laid against Yang, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne released a strongly worded statement that indicated that Canberra believes that Yang has been detained because of his public political advocacy. Payne stated, “I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr. Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.” She further added, in language that demonstrated a strong distrust of Beijing’s opaque legal processes, “We expect Dr. Yang to be treated in accordance with international human rights law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with special attention to those provisions that prohibit torture and inhumane treatment, guard against arbitrary detention and that protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
For Australia, the arrest of Yang is a further indication that the international rules and norms that Canberra relies on are being threatened by Beijing. The use of hostage diplomacy, first with the two Canadians, and now seemingly with Yang, is of serious concern to Canberra as its ability to engage confidently with the world is wedded to the consistency of these rules and norms, and the self-restraint of states more powerful than itself.
This is brought even more sharply into focus for the Australian government at present as the country’s primary security partner, the United States, is currently led by an administration that doesn’t seem to understand the value of its alliance network, and therefore may not offer the kind of diplomatic muscle Australia requires to prevent its citizens being used by China in this manner. This provides Beijing with an ability to take bolder actions without having to worry about considerable blowback from the White House.
For Australia, the arrest of Yang will be a test of its resolve in pushing back against the CCP’s attempts to use arbitrary detention as a tactic to produce outcomes it finds more favorable. This is not only important for the protection of Australian citizens, but to prevent other states from believing that this is a course of action that can achieve results. With an unreliable United States, the ability of Australia to coordinate with other middle powers to form a more collective bulwark against Beijing’s behavior will also be a test of Australia’s creative diplomatic skills. For many Chinese-Australians Canberra’s capacity to establish this diplomatic weight may affect their decisions about whether they are able to visit China or not.