Australia FM to push for release of citizens during China visit

Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained in August 2020 and Chinese-born Australian Yang Jun in January 2019.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong attends the 77th United Nations General Assembly in New York, US, in September 2022 [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said she will press for the release of two Australian citizens held in China, as she prepared to embark on a landmark visit to Beijing — the first top Australian diplomat to visit the country in four years.

In a sign of thawing relations between Australia and China, Canberra said on Tuesday that Wong would visit Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations and will meet with the Chinese minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi.

The last official visit to Beijing by an Australian foreign minister was in 2018. Since then, relations between the two countries have plummeted.

Wong said before her departure on Tuesday that the issue of the two imprisoned Australians — journalist Cheng Lei and writer Yang Jun — would be addressed.

“I think that it would be beneficial not just for the individuals, which is I think important in its own right, but it would be beneficial to the relationship for those consular matters to be dealt with,” she said.

The release of Australian citizens would remove one obstacle to improving relations between the two countries, Wong said. But, she also tempered expectations that a breakthrough with Beijing on the “hard issues” of trade sanctions and the detainees would be achieved overnight.

“There has been a lot of speculation in the last 24 hours or more about what will happen. I will say this, the expectation should be that we will have a meeting, and that dialogue itself is essential to stabilising the relationship,” Wong said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

China’s Foreign Ministry said the visit will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday and will include a new round of long-suspended China-Australia talks on foreign and strategic issues.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained by Chinese authorities in August 2020, and Chinese-born Australian Yang Jun was detained in January 2019.

Cheng, a mother of two and former anchor at Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was formally arrested in February 2021 and charged with “supplying state secrets overseas”.

Chinese-born Australian Yang Jun, who also goes by the pen name Yang Hengjun, wrote a series of spy novels and a popular Chinese-language blog. He has been accused by Beijing of espionage and has been tried behind closed doors.

“Australia seeks a stable relationship with China; we will cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, announcing the visit.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Monday said Beijing hoped Wong’s visit would “strengthen dialogue, expand cooperation and keep differences in check, while pushing bilateral relations back on track”.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia still provides much of the ore, metal and minerals that drive China’s economic growth.

But Canberra and Beijing have sparred in recent years — notably over Chinese political influence operations in Australia, widespread rights abuse against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, repression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and status of Tibet, as well as the US security role in the Asia-Pacific region.

China was incensed by Australia’s decision to effectively ban state-sanctioned firm Huawei from operating the country’s 5G network, and by calls from Canberra to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In retaliation, China imposed sanctions on a range of Australian goods and instituted a freeze on high-level contacts.

Relations only recently warmed when Albanese met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in Bali in November.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies