Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian blogger and writer, was detained by Chinese authorities on 19 January and charged with “endangering national security.” He was detained after arriving to Guangzhou with his wife and son on a flight from New York, where he is currently living and working as a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
The China-born writer, blogger and political commentator is an Australian citizen since 2000. Before moving to Australia, Yang was an employee of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for ten years. Since gaining the Australian citizenship, he has been a vocal critic of the Chinese regime and has advocated relentlessly for democracy in China.
This is not Yang’s first run-in with Chinese authorities. He briefly disappeared in 2011 after calling a friend from a Chinese airport to say he was being followed. He later said the matter had been a “misunderstanding.” He was also reportedly questioned by authorities during a 2017 visit to China.
“Yang Hengjun has committed no crime in commenting on the Chinese society and politics, which makes his arrest totally unjustified and abusive,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) East Asia Bureau. “We call on the international community to ramp up the pressure on Beijing so that they would immediately release Yang and all other detained journalists and bloggers”.
Yang is the latest in a series of foreign nationals to be detained by China in recent months. Following the December arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a high-ranking executive of Chinese technology firm Huawei, Beijing arrested two Canadians: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The government of Canada later said more than a dozen of its citizens had been detained, most of them released.
At a briefing in Beijing on 24 January, Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said that “The Australian government is obviously concerned with the residential surveillance of Mr Yang. He is an Australian citizen, and we are seeking to provide him with consular assistance and support to ensure he is being treated fairly and transparently.”
According to Australian officials, he is being held in “residential surveillance at a designated location”, or RSDL, in Beijing. The term is often used when Chinese investigators hold a suspect at a secret location. The interrogation process is thought to often include torture – a practice China denies takes place.
Speaking to The Guardian, Michael Castor, a human rights advocate focusing on RSDL said that “RSDL is so concerning precisely because it institutionalises enforced disappearances and raises the risk of torture, both gross human rights violations and crimes under international law.”
Australian Liberal backbencher and chair of the Parliament’s intelligence committee, Andrew Hastie, has accused Beijing of coercion and suggested the detainment of Yang was designed to deter members of the Chinese diaspora from speaking out against the Communist Party.
“Beijing’s aggressive and vengeful behaviour with Canadian and now Australian citizens is alarming,” he said. “The arrest of Australian citizen Yung Hengjun should be of concern to all Australians.”
According to Reporters without Borders, the Chinese authorities no longer sentence press freedom defenders to death, but they deliberately mistreat them and deprive them of the medical attention they need while in prison.
In 2017, the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the dissident blogger Yang Tongyan both died from cancer that was left untreated in detention. Liu Xiaobo’s widow Liu Xia, who is suffering from depression and a heart condition, has been denied contact with the outside world for eight years although no charge has been brought against her.