Australia calls China to treat detained Yang Hengjun 'fairly'

Foreign minister says no evidence writer's arrest is part of backlash against Canada's arrest of top Huawei executive.

    Yang was once described as China's 'most influential political blogger' [File: Reuters]
    Yang was once described as China's 'most influential political blogger' [File: Reuters]

    The Australian government has urged China to treat the case of arrested writer Yang Hengjun  "transparently and fairly", amid a growing row over the fate of the Chinese-Australian.

    Officials in Canberra confirmed on Thursday that dual-national Yang, an author and former Chinese diplomat who is now an Australian citizen, had been arrested shortly after he flew into the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou from New York last week.

    China is holding Yang on suspicion of endangering state security, China's foreign ministry said on Thursday.

    Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Australia was officially notified when Yang was placed under "coercive measures" - a euphemism for detention. Yang's rights and interests were being protected in accordance with the law, she added.

    Australia earlier said it was trying to get access to Yang.

    "Our embassy in Beijing will meet with Chinese authorities this morning to seek further clarification of the nature of this detention and to arrange consular access at the earliest possible opportunity," Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

    Strained relations

    Tensions between China and some parts of the West have heightened since two Canadians - a diplomat on unpaid leave and a consultant - were arrested in China on suspicion of endangering state security.

    Those arrests were widely seen in Western capitals as retaliation by Beijing for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, in Canada on December 1. She is accused of violating US sanctions on Iran, charges she denies.

    The Australian government was first alerted that Yang had gone missing after friends said he had not been reachable for several days.

    Australia joined international condemnation of the arrest of the two Canadians but Yang has long been in the sights of Chinese authorities. He has criticised what he described as Chinese interference in Australia. 

    Call to Beijing

    Payne said Australia would be concerned if his detention was related to the detention of the Canadians or her government's decision in August to block Huawei from rolling out the country's  5G network due to security concerns.

    Both issues have figured in speculation about the reasons for Yang's detention, which comes at a time Canberra and Beijing vie more openly for influence in the Pacific.

    "At this stage, there is no evidence of such a connection," Payne told reporters of a potential link to the Canadians' detention.

    "I'd be concerned if there was an indication of that. So we are calling on the Chinese authorities to ensure this matter is dealt with transparently and fairly," she added.

    Meanwhile, Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne is due to land in Beijing for previously scheduled talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, and other top officials.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissent since coming to power in 2012, with hundreds of rights lawyers and activists arrested. Dozens have been jailed.

    Yang had worked in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the southern province of Hainan, but in 1992 moved to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. Five years later, he went to the United States where he worked for the Atlantic Council think-tank.

    Yang later took up Australian citizenship and wrote a series of spy novels as well as a popular Chinese-language blog.

    Once described as China's "most influential political blogger", Yang went missing in 2011. When he reappeared days later, he described his disappearance as a "misunderstanding".

    SOURCE: News agencies