Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne speaks to the media at the Australian embassy in Beijing, China on January 24, 2019. Yang Hengjun, who has Australian citizenship, is being held in Beijing, according to Australian authorities. Picture: REUTERS/JASON LEE
Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne speaks to the media at the Australian embassy in Beijing, China on January 24, 2019. Yang Hengjun, who has Australian citizenship, is being held in Beijing, according to Australian authorities. Picture: REUTERS/JASON LEE

Sydney — A former Chinese diplomat, who has Australian citizenship, is being held in residential detention in China, government ministers said, and Canberra is disappointed in how long it took Beijing to notify them after the man went missing.

Australia said on Thursday that author Yang Hengjun was detained shortly after he flew in to the southern city of Guangzhou from New York last week, but it did not believe his detention was the result of rising tensions between China and the West.

Defence minister Christopher Pyne said Australia, under existing diplomatic conventions, would normally expect to be told of such a case within three days. Yang went missing on Friday and Canberra was not told until four days later, he said.

“Obviously, that is disappointing and we’ll be raising it ... with Chinese government officials,” Pyne told reporters in Beijing, where he arrived on Thursday for previously scheduled talks.  “He’s being held in residential surveillance, which we would normally describe as home detention ... my understanding is it’s in Beijing.” 

China has, so far, not commented publicly about Yang’s case.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks after 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 the West as retaliation by Beijing for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, in Canada on December 1. She is accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said staff from Australia’s embassy met Chinese officials on Thursday to seek answers and, while details were limited, she said there was no evidence that it was linked to Australian criticism of Beijing’s detention of the two Canadians.

“At this stage there is no evidence of such a connection ... but I’d be concerned if there was an indication of that,” she told reporters in Sydney. “We are calling on the Chinese authorities to ensure this matter is dealt with transparently and fairly.” 

‘Not safe’

Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney, said he asked Yang to avoid travelling to China because of the tensions. “I tried to persuade him not to go. I didn’t think it would be safe for him because of the situation with Huawei, but he believed that he would fine as he had been there so many times.” 

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 describes as Chinese interference in Australia.

Yang was also reported missing while in China in 2011, emerging several days later. Two sources familiar with the details said he had been detained but agreed to say he was unwell.

However, Yang is not seen as a radical dissident.

Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based political analyst who knows Yang, told Reuters in a message that he did not know the reason for Yang’s detention but that his WeChat accounts had been deleted.  “He has not publicly released any political essays in recent years,” Deng said.

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 detained. Dozens have been jailed.

Pyne arrived in Beijing on Thursday for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, and other senior officials. His visit was arranged in a bid to repair ties damaged by Australian allegations in 2017 that China was meddling in its domestic affairs.

Analysts said Yang’s arrest would add to pressure on Canberra to rebuke its largest trading partner.

“Australia can’t hide from this, it will need to respectfully protect its citizens,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. “This detention marks the new normal in the bilateral tension, which will be constant low-level tension.” 

Reuters