China has been accused of “hostage diplomacy” after formally arresting Australian citizen Yang Hengjun. Picture: iStock
China has been accused of “hostage diplomacy” after formally arresting Australian citizen Yang Hengjun. Picture: iStock

China takes its ‘revenge’ on Australia

CHINA'S formal arrest of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun on espionage charges is a form of "revenge" and "hostage diplomacy", experts have warned.

Dr Yang, a writer, pro-democracy activist and former Chinese diplomat, was detained in January and held for months without access to his lawyers or family. Yesterday we learned he had been charged with spying, an offence punishable by death in China.

RELATED: China formally arrests Australian Yang Hengjun

Foreign Minister Marise Payne reacted with a strongly worded statement that included references to "torture" and "inhumane treatment" - a clear escalation of language and perhaps a sign that Australia was done quietly lobbying China behind the scenes.

In response, China bluntly told Australia not to "interfere" in Dr Yang's case.

"I would like to stress that China is a country with rule of law, and Australia should earnestly respect China's judicial sovereignty and not interfere in China's handling of the case in accordance with the law in any way," said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

For all that talk about the "rule of law", however, this is not just a legal matter. It is nakedly political.

Yang Hengjun and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang. Picture: Feng Chongyi/AP
Yang Hengjun and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang. Picture: Feng Chongyi/AP

The clear giveaway is China providing no proof to back up its accusation of espionage, even after imprisoning and repeatedly interrogating Dr Yang for more than seven months.

"There has been no suggestion of any evidence of any kind produced to support the allegation," Julian McMahon, a barrister representing Dr Yang, told the ABC.

"The charge is a very vague charge. It is 'suspicion of espionage'.

"We don't even know the details of the charge or which section of the relevant act it's under. We don't know the details, we don't know the possible penalties, which in espionage cases as you can imagine are the full range of penalties.

"There is a sense with China that the criminal law can be used for a political purpose. And that's why people talk about cases in China as if someone's been arrested for some larger, broader political purpose."

Another of Dr Yang's lawyers, Rob Stary, said there was "absolutely no foundation" for the charge against him.

"He had been active and he's been politically active in promoting democratic values. That's the basis of it, as we understand," Mr Stary said.

RELATED: How Dr Yang was taken into custody

Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who sought political asylum and defected to Australia in 2005, framed the situation in even starker terms.

"It's revenge," Mr Chen told Sky News.

"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."

Mr Chen linked China's treatment of Dr Yang to media coverage of Chinese espionage and influence in Australia and legislation the Government passed last year overhauling its security and foreign interference laws.

That legislation created new espionage offences, beefed up the penalties for spying and established a register of foreign political agents.

Soon afterwards, in February of this year, China was widely blamed for a sophisticated cyberattack on Australia's parliament and political parties. It denounced the claims against it as "irresponsible" and "baseless".

There are other sources of tension between Australia and China as well, from the Government's decision to ban the Chinese telco giant Huawei from our 5G network to Prime Minister Scott Morrison's veiled criticism of China's "coercion" tactics in the South China Sea and Australia's ongoing support for protesters in Hong Kong.

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The Government blamed a “state actor” — widely assumed to be China — for the cyberattack.
The Government blamed a “state actor” — widely assumed to be China — for the cyberattack.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University, echoed the view that Dr Yang's case was about something far larger than just one man.

"It's hard to take the accusations themselves too seriously unless we see some pretty substantial evidence produced," Prof Medcalf told the ABC.

"I fear that this is much more about signalling, it's almost a kind of hostage diplomacy, and I see this as an event that is part of a pattern.

"It's really about sending signals of intimidation to Chinese Australians and indeed to Australia itself. I see it as really that kind of ugly diplomatic signalling."

He compared Dr Yang's situation to that of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained by China without access to legal services since December.

The Australian and Canadian governments have both tried to strike a diplomatic balance, quietly advocating for their detained citizens and simultaneously trying to avoid a public row with China.

RELATED: Australian Government accused of 'very weak' response

"It's striking that clearly everything has already been tried in terms of behind the scenes diplomacy, discrete diplomacy, the kinds of 'speak softly' approach that we're often advised to take. And it's a signal I think in fact that that hasn't worked, it probably doesn't work and perhaps Australia should have come out more strongly on this early on," Prof Medcalf said.

"It's easy to say that. It doesn't mean we would have achieved a different result. I fear this is where we were going to end up all along.

"It's clearly not worked, and I suspect it became clear quite some time ago that it wasn't going to work."

Australian consular officials have met with Dr Yang seven times - an eighth visit was scheduled for today - and Ms Payne has repeatedly written to her Chinese counterpart pushing for Dr Yang's release.

Nevertheless, China has continued to deny Dr Yang access to his lawyers. He is also unable to see his wife, who has been banned from leaving Beijing. And the conditions of his detention have been "extremely harsh".

"He has very little freedom of movement even around his own cell. So those are extremely harsh conditions and unacceptable from the point of view of proper administration," Mr McMahon said.

Dr Yang has repeatedly been denied access to his lawyers. Picture: AP
Dr Yang has repeatedly been denied access to his lawyers. Picture: AP

Even now, despite the escalation in Ms Payne's public language, the Government seems uncertain how hard to push back against China.

"Are you disappointed though with how China has handled this situation?" Michael McCormack, acting as prime minister during Mr Morrison's trip to the G7 summit, was asked yesterday.

"Well, look, it's not for me to say I'm disappointed or not. The fact is it's happened, there are protocols in place and processes in place and they are unfolding as we speak," he said.

"We need our strong relationships and links with China."

"Do you have concerns for this man's treatment? Has he been tortured?" a reporter followed up.

"I'm not sure. I don't know. I can't comment," said Mr McCormack.

"You don't seem very concerned about his welfare," the reporter observed.

"Well, I can't comment. I can't comment because I don't know," he replied.

Dr Yang's supporters, foremost among them UTS academic Feng Chongyi, have accused the Government of being too timid. So have human rights advocates.

"I think we're seeing the Chinese Government being emboldened by the lack of pressure coming from the international community on these issues," said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch.

"It's really important that human rights is part of the consistent, regular pressure that is applied by our Department of Foreign Affairs, that is applied by our politicians, that is applied by our trade officials when they are going to talk to China about any issue.

"It's clear the Chinese Government is feeling so bold that it can now even arrest Australian citizens with very little blowback."

Prof Medcalf said Australia now had "no option" but to express its views to China publicly.

"There may be no other options left. And we shouldn't feel deterred by the possibility that China will somehow bring about some kind of diplomatic cooling of the relationship, which is already pretty cool, or that China will somehow contemplate some kind of economic punishment," he said.

"At some point, and this is to the Government's credit I think, the government of a democracy has to stand up for the individual right of an Australian citizen, and that point has well and truly been reached."

- with AAP