Diplomatic relations between Australia and China have become increasingly antagonistic as Australian writer and political commentator, Yang Hengjun, continues to be held by Chinese authorities. Earlier this week, attempts by the Australian government to return Yang home failed as China formally charged the pro-democracy advocate with “espionage.”
In response, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been uncharacteristically frank in her remarks that Yang is not only being held in “harsh” conditions but implied the grounds of the allegations were also unfounded; “There is no basis for any allegation Dr Yang was spying for the Australian government.” Senator Payne went on to state: “Most importantly that if he is to be detained, that he is detained in accordance with the expectations accorded to him through conventions in international law, and they include access to lawyers, they include appropriate conditions of detention.” Beijing’s response was equally strong-worded, with China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang rebuking that, “China deplores the Australian statement on this case. I would like to reiterate that China is a country with rule of law.”
In China, being found guilty of espionage can carry penalties anywhere from three years to the death penalty. Not only does Yang Hengjun face the possibility of being found guilty of a capital offence on a vague charge but also, despite what Chinese authorities have publicly stated, is experiencing poor conditions of detainment without access to his lawyers or his family for the last seven months of investigation. Since his formal arrest last week, he has been allocated a 30-minute monthly meeting with Australian embassy staff, however, he is still restricted from meeting lawyers or loved ones, and his wife has been banned from leaving China.
An ongoing trial of wills, the detainment of Yang Hengjun for the ambiguous charge of “committing espionage crimes” could very possibly define the Sino-Australian relationship going forward, particularly since it coincides with the persistent depression in diplomatic cooperation between Canberra and Beijing. Despite being Australia’s largest exporter, the divergence in political outlooks has placed the two countries on a collision course in which the arrest of Yang, an Australian citizen and critic of the Chinese state, could be the moment of impact.
To fully appreciate the importance of Yang’s formal arrest, it is important to place it in a context of tit-for-tat diplomacy whereby primarily non-democratic countries have been attempting to force their will by detaining or persecuting foreign citizens. This “hostage diplomacy” has already occurred in the wake of Meng Wenzhou’s arrest in Vancouver, which led to the retaliatory detainment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by the Chinese government.
A pro-democracy activist and former Chinese diplomat, the lack of proof justifying the espionage accusation of Yang lead to one deduction: the arrest of Yang is far more political than legal. Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat himself who defected to Australia in 2005 stated: “It’s revenge…China wants to save their image, and to show the Chinese (are) very much powerful and influential enough to say no to a foreign Western hostile power.”
The Australian Director of the Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson also expressed concern for the Chinese Government’s brazenness in an international setting geared towards cooperation. China has warned Australia not to intervene in the case and demands respect for its judicial sovereignty. In situations like these, where the universalism of human rights, the duty of a nation to protect its people and the right of a state to exercise sovereignty and protect its security, expose the difficulty democratic states face when negotiating with foreign and politically dissimilar countries. The solution will take time and negotiation, however, in the short term, ANU security expert Rory Medcalf recommended Australia change its travel advice to notify Australian citizens of Chinese origin to use caution and be aware of the greater risk they take when travelling to China.
The future for Yang Hengjun is uncertain, and the strategy Australia chooses to adopt, whether it be appeasement or retaliation, will have long term consequences for Sino-Australian cooperation for decades to come. In a situation of strained relations over a range of issues including Huawei’s ban, Chinese espionage allegations and military expansion in the South China Sea, the arrest of Yang is more than an attempt to protect national security by the Chinese government. The arrest of Yang is more so a political signal that the Chinese Communist Party will enforce authority and penalty against critics of the Chinese state, particularly those of Chinese origin.