An Australian novelist and political commentator has been detained in China, raising alarm that Beijing is using harsh methods against Canadian intelligence allies as it seeks the release of a Huawei executive arrested in Vancouver.
Yang Hengjun, a writer and former Chinese diplomat who recently worked as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, landed in China’s southern city of Guangzhou early Jan. 19 with his wife and stepdaughter.
He was met at the airport by 10 security agents, who detained him, according to Feng Chongyi, a University of Technology Sydney professor who is friends with Mr. Yang. The novelist has been accused of espionage, according to Mr. Feng, who has been in touch with Mr. Yang’s wife, Yuan Rui Juan. She is now in Shanghai.
Late Wednesday, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that Chinese authorities have confirmed they detained Mr. Yang. Australia “is seeking to clarify the nature of this detention and to obtain consular access to him, in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement, as a matter of priority,” the department said.
Earlier on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no information about Mr. Yang.
The specific reasons for Mr. Yang’s detention have not been confirmed. Chinese authorities routinely detain, interrogate and jail people considered dissidents. Mr. Yang has been an Australian citizen since 2002 and, although he has been living most recently in the United States, has regularly travelled to China.
But China’s detention of two Canadians following the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, has raised fears around the world, and Mr. Feng said he worries his friend has been caught up in Chinese reprisals.
"It’s a direct extension of the hostage diplomacy of the Chinese government. They took Canadians as hostages before. But now they have started to take Australians as hostages,” said Mr. Feng, a scholar who was himself held and interrogated in China for 10 days in 2017, during a trip to research human-rights lawyers.
Mr. Yang has penned spy novels as well as articles critical of China’s political system and leadership, gaining him a following inside the country – on social media, people praise him as an inspirational truth teller – although Chinese authorities have shut down some of his blogs and groups on WeChat, the social-media app.
He nonetheless continued his frequent travels to China, landing in the country once every few months in recent years, Mr. Feng said. Mr. Yang had also tempered his critiques of China in the past two or three years. Those indications suggested that it had been “very safe for him to travel to China,” Mr. Feng said.
But Mr. Yang’s trip to Guangzhou on the weekend was his first since the Dec. 1 arrest of Ms. Meng, and the circumstances that have followed, including the detention of two Canadians and a death sentence for a third in a drug-trafficking case.
That situation worried Mr. Feng, who argued with Mr. Yang over his Jan. 19 trip to China from New York, which he planned because his wife and step-daughter were waiting on visas to Australia, while his own visa to the United States was nearing expiry.
“I told him not to go back to China. The situation is so so dangerous there,” Mr. Feng said.
Mr. Yang vanished in China once before, in 2011, stirring worries that he had fallen into the hands of the secret police. He then quickly reappeared, saying he had not been kidnapped but offering a mysterious explanation for his disappearance.
“I’ve been sick, nothing else, and my phone battery was dead for two days so I could not contact my family,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. “I’m very sorry about stirring up so much trouble in both countries.” He said then of China, “so much of me is invested here – my work is here, I’m working for democracy.”
Chinese authorities have in recent years taken increasingly strong measures against those seen as potential challengers to Communist Party authority, including human rights lawyers, church leaders and labour activists. This year is a particularly sensitive one, since June 4 will mark the 30th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests.
Mr. Feng, however, said he is certain Mr. Yang holds only an Australian passport.
“If Yang’s disappearance is politically motivated, that’s a worrying sign that China’s retribution over Meng Wanzhou is extending to all nations it sees as playing a role in the global pushback against Huawei we’ve seen in recent months,” said Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Australia and Canada are both members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and Canberra has blocked both Huawei and ZTE, another major Chinese technology company, from installing fifth-generational cellular technology in Australia.
That decision prompted anger in Beijing, as did the public expressions of concern by the Australian government over the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China and, later, the death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, who was convicted of organized international drug smuggling after a quickly arranged retrial. He had been sentenced to a prison term at his first trial just months earlier.
China’s detention of Mr. Yang “could be seen as a kind of a revenge against the West, to warn other U.S. and Canadian allies not to speak with one voice in lining up against Huawei,” said Willy Lam, a China expert who is a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.
Mr. Yang himself had commented on the dispute between Canada and China. On Jan. 16, he made a post to China’s Twitter-like Weibo service, after China published an alert to travellers about the risk of arbitrary detention in Canada. That language matched a similar alert published by Ottawa, warning about travel to China.
On Weibo, Mr. Yang mocked the Chinese warning.
“Canada is among the three most friendly countries on earth for travellers,” he wrote. “If a country like that deserves a safety notice, then it seems maybe North Korea is the safest destination on earth.”