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China formally arrests Australian writer on ‘spying’ charge

Person under arrest in handcuffs. (Pixabay/Released)
August 28, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in the Chinese capital have formally arrested an Australian academic and writer for espionage after holding him incommunicado for seven months with no access to a lawyer or family visits, prompting sharp criticism from Canberra.

Yang Hengjun, an outspoken Australian writer and political commentator who formerly held Chinese nationality, was taken to Beijing by state security police on arriving at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19 and placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RDSL) for six months.

Yang’s attorney Mo Shaoping said his formal arrest has now been approved by the Beijing state prosecutor’s office.

“There was a previous limit of 37 days for his detention by Beijing state security police,” Mo said. “Now that the procuratorate has approved his formal arrest, the Beijing state security police are allowed to keep holding him for another two months.”

“If that’s not enough, they can apply for an extension to this limit for a total of three times,” he said.

Yang’s formal arrest prompted a sharp statement from Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, who says she has raised Yang’s case five times with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

“Dr. Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” Payne said. “Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr. Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits.”

A form of torture

RDSL has been highlighted as a form of torture under international human rights law, as it involves holding a person incommunicado with no access to lawyers or family visits.

Yang, 54, was only transferred to the Beijing State Security Bureau Detention Center last month.

Mo said RDSL is typically employed in cases where people have been accused of crimes linked to state security, but that the specific charges have changed.

“When he was under RDSL, the notification document said he was being held on suspicion of endangering state security,” Mo said.

“Then, after his status was changed to criminal detention, they told his family that the … charge had been changed to suspected espionage.”

Mo said he has been repeatedly denied permission to meet with Yang, although Australian consular officials are meeting with him regularly.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Yang is “currently in good health.”

He said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is “strongly dissatisfied” with Payne’s statement.

“The Australian side should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not intervene in any way to China’s handling of the case,” Geng told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

International tension

Yang’s detention comes amid growing international tension over the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of China’s flagship telecommunications firm Huawei.

More than 10 Canadians were detained in China after the ruling Chinese Communist Party vowed to retaliate for the arrest of Meng, who is wanted for questioning by investigators in the U.S. over alleged bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran.

Both the U.S. and Canada have now upgraded cautionary advice to any of their citizens traveling to China, amid growing calls for the release of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor, who are also being detained on suspicion of “endangering state security.”

Australia has tended until now to avoid crossing Beijing, but Yang’s arrest will increase public pressure on Canberra to stand up to China amid growing concerns around Beijing’s influence in Australian political, cultural, and academic life.

Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education decided on Aug. 22 to end a Chinese language education program involving a Beijing-backed Confucius Institute, following an investigation into foreign government links to foreign education programs.

Academic freedom threatened

A U.S. Senate subcommittee found in March that the controversial Confucius Institutes could constitute a threat to university life and freedom of speech in the U.S., as their funding comes “with strings attached.”

The United States Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations said in a recent report that the Chinese Communist Party has poured more than U.S.$158 million into U.S. universities to fund Confucius Institutes since 2006.

But it found that “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom,” and recommended they be shut down if there is no improvement in transparency around their dealings with U.S. universities.

It said the contracts signed between the institutes and universities generally contain provisions that state that both Chinese and U.S. laws apply, limit public disclosure of the contract, and terminate the contract if the U.S. school take actions that “severely harm the image or reputation” of the Confucius Institute.

This means effectively that all teachers, events and speakers at Confucius Institutes are approved by Beijing, and should be required to register as agents of a foreign government, the report said.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a similar warning around the same time, concluding that “the presence of an institute could constrain campus activities and classroom content.”