Australia Silent on Yang Hengjun’s Arrest in China But PM Says Working Behind Scenes

May 6, 2019 Updated: May 6, 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australia is working through diplomatic channels to secure the release of a man being held in China on accusations of spying.

Australia is working behind the scenes with a “bespoke approach” to secure the release of an Australian-Chinese writer being held without charge in Beijing for “endangering state security.”

Yang Hengjun, a 53-year-old Chinese-born writer, was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou while waiting for a transfer to Shanghai in January, after flying in from New York.

China has said the city’s State Security Bureau is holding him under “coercive measures,” a euphemism for detention, while he is investigated by China’s secret service.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government has been advised that working quietly with China on the “complex matter” is the best approach. Others more critical of the Chinese Communist Party and its tactics say the federal government’s silence on China issues leaves “the Australian public misinformed about one of the key areas of government policy for their lifetimes.”

“The best assistance and the best support we can provide is to not engage in a public commentary on this matter and work carefully through the diplomatic channels we have,” Morrison told reporters in South Nowra on the NSW south coast on Monday.

The prime minister has previously publicly put pressure on Thailand to release refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi but says this case is different.

“All diplomatic matters require bespoke approaches. That’s how you manage those very sensitive issues and that’s what I will do,” Morrison said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor supported the government’s work to free Yang.

“It’s very concerning about the detention of this person. We support the efforts of the government, we’ve had some briefings on it,” he told reporters in Sydney.

Yang’s wife has hired two lawyers to represent him but in April they were banned from seeing him because authorities said he did not agree to their appointment.

One of the lawyers, Mo Shaoping, said the state security bureau told him Yang “did not accept lawyers appointed by his family” but his request to verify this in person was rejected.

Shortly after he was detained, Yang’s friends in Australia released a letter he had left with instructions to make it public if he was arrested again.

In the letter, Mr Yang urges activists to “maintain belief in China’s democratic future, and, when it doesn’t put yourself or your family at risk, to use all your means to push China’s democratic development to happen sooner.”

“If I can come out, I will continue my work. If I cannot come out or disappear again, remember my articles and let your children read them,” he wrote.

Last month, his wife and friends also expressed concerns that Yang may be enduring torture while detained by communist China’s secret service.

Yang has been an Australian citizen since 2002 and was also abducted by Chinese government agents in 2011.

He had been living in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University before leaving for Guangzhou on Jan. 18.

By Angus Livingston