Diplomats believe the arrest of popular Australian pro-democracy blogger Dr Yang Hengjun on espionage charges may be the start of a tougher offensive by Beijing against its growing band of Chinese critics in the West.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed on August 27 that Yang, who has dual Australian and Chinese citizenship, and lives in both countries, was arrested on August 23. China has informed Australian diplomats only that Yang is “suspected of committing espionage crimes.”
Payne called on Beijing to treat Yang in accordance with international human rights laws “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.”
“It is important, and we expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met. I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.”
China has not yet publicly commented on Yang’s arrest, but it is assumed he is suspected of spying for Australia.
Hubei-born Yang worked for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing for several years after graduating from Fudan University, but since has had no known government links.
In comments to The Conversation, an Australian-run opinion site, Payne said that “there is no basis for any allegation Dr Yang was spying for the Australian government.”
Academic Dr Feng Chongyi, who was one of Yang’s lecturers at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) after he moved to Australia in 1999, said Yang’s work had brought him into “connection to the Chinese secret police”, but he had resigned his position “to embrace freedom and democracy.”
“In a nutshell, Yang is a political dissident no longer tolerated by the Chinese communist regime. He is paying a heavy price as a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party,” Feng said after Yang was placed in a criminal facility last month following six months of house detention.
A Canberra-based foreign diplomat said that Yang’s arrest could signal a “worrying” hardening of China’s attitude toward overseas dissidents.
“Unquestionably, ethnic Chinese activists, dissidents abroad — call them what you will — have been an irritation for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), especially since the internet gave them a bigger voice, but it does generally rely on censorship to stop them reaching a domestic audience.
“One wonders whether the trouble in Hong Kong has prompted a rethink of strategies to contain unwelcome political comment from outside the country. Certainly Dr Yang does have a large readership in the diaspora,” the diplomat said.
Another diplomat told Asia Times Yang’s arrest was part of a pattern of detentions that had followed the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December at the request of the US, which had accused her of breaking sanctions against Iran by supplying telecoms gear.
China responded by arresting Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Spavor is a businessman and Kovrig a former diplomat who now works with the International Crisis Group think tank.
“It is no secret that Western countries suspect Huawei’s intentions in bidding for backbone infrastructure contracts. This [Yang’s arrest] may be a continuation of the pressure on Canada, but it does have more of an overtly political overtone. It could be a shift of emphasis by Beijing,” the diplomat said.
Yang probably honed his anti-communist views in the early 1990s while he was a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a conservative Washington-based think tank that some suggest is staffed by former US intelligence agents.
He became an Australian citizen in 2000 after migrating to Sydney with his wife and two sons, and pursued a career as a writer. Yang released a trilogy of fictional spy novels in 2002-2005 that Feng said had been inspired by his own experiences in Beijing and those of his colleagues.
Their hero was a Chinese-US double agent who deserts both sides and “works for his own inspiration and conviction to serve the real interests of the people.” The Chinese-language novels never did very well, probably because Beijing managed to block their distribution in mainland China.
Yang began his PhD in Chinese Studies at UTS in 2005, graduating in 2009 with a thesis entitled The Internet and China: the Impacts of Netizen Reporters and Bloggers on Democratization in China. Since then he has attracted an audience of millions through his online pro-democracy blogs.
In one 2014 piece he wrote of how China used reform to consolidate the grip of the ruling elite, which in recent times meant the Communist Party.
“Of course, the biggest problem encountered by Chinese reform movements is that there’s no way to change the system itself, which has lasted for 2,000 years. All you can do is make it more perfect, more refined — and more evil,” Yang charged.
He first ran into problems with Beijing in 2011, when he disappeared from Guangzhou airport after telling a friend that he was being followed by three men. Yang was freed from custody after Australian diplomatic pressure.
Yang toned down his rhetoric after the 2011 scare, commenting on issues in China rather than pushing for social change. Beijing still wasn’t happy, it seems.
On January 19 this year he was detained after flying from New York to Guangzhou, where he still spends much of the year. He had been in transit for a Shanghai flight to collect new Australian visas for his family members.
Yang was placed under house detention in Beijing and moved to criminal detention in July. He could potentially face execution on the espionage charge.