Australia must recognise unfortunate reality in China and issue travel warnings
The Chinese Communist Party has long made the country unsafe for religious minorities, journalists, feminists, lawyers, and human rights activists. But, under Xi Jinping, China is becoming increasingly unsafe for any politically engaged foreign national.
Since January 18, Chinese-Australian writer and activist Yang Hengjun has been held in arbitrary detention. His crime? Daring to question communist party orthodoxy by suggesting that the Chinese people are capable of democratic self-government.
Yang has been charged with espionage and languished in prison for nearly a year. The conditions of Yang’s detention are an affront to any standard of human decency.
Despite being in "good health" before his detention, reports from Yang’s lawyers indicate that he is now "suffering [from] high blood pressure, and serious problems with his kidney function". He is being given unknown "medications" and his hands and feet are being "shackled" during interrogations.
Such treatment likely constitutes torture, putting China in violation of international human rights law. The Australian government must impose costs on the Chinese Communist Party for brutalising an Australian citizen in this way.
Yang’s case is not unique. For 359 days, two Canadians have also been held in arbitrary detention.
The first, Michael Kovrig, is a former Canadian diplomat and senior advisor for North Asia at the International Crisis Group — a world-renowned think tank dedicated to resolving conflicts and promoting world peace. Kovrig, working for the Crisis Group while on unpaid leave from Canada’s diplomatic corps, is accused of undermining China’s national security.
The espionage charge, however, is nothing short of absurd. Punishing Kovrig under Chinese domestic law for executing his duties either as a Canadian diplomat or as an officer for the Crisis Group amounts to an effective criminalisation of diplomacy. Former Western diplomats who remains politically engaged probably won’t feel safe going to China after Kovrig’s detention — even for holidays.
The second Canadian, Michael Spavor, has also been charged with espionage. Spavor, who ran a tourism company in China that took tourists to North Korea, has been wrongfully imprisoned for just as long as Kovrig. Spavor’s detention should make any politically-engaged businessman think twice before going to China — iron ore exporters included.
The circumstances in which the two Michaels were detained adds further concern. Both Kovrig and Spavor were detained shortly after the United States requested that Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wenzhou be extradited from Canada.
Scott Morrison has voiced his concerns over the treatment of Australian man Yang Hengjun who has been detained in China and says he's raised the issues consistently.
Charged with counts of bank and wire fraud, the Canadian government rightly took this legitimate extradition request from a close ally seriously. In contrast to Yang, Kovrig and Spavor, Meng is allowed to see a lawyer and was even granted bail by a Canadian court. She is currently living in her multi-million dollar mansion in Vancouver.
Kovrig and Spavor are being held hostage in retaliation to the United States requesting that Canada extradite Meng to face criminal charges before a court in which a fair trial is a guaranteed right. To use the Chinese Communist Party’s own phraseology, this is a grave example of an imperial power meddling in Canada’s internal affairs.
The precedent set by detaining the two Michaels is dangerous in the extreme. Not only does it punish legitimate business, diplomatic and intellectual activity, but it runs the risk of normalising hostage-taking as a mode of international statecraft.
The example set by Yang’s detention is just as troubling. The Chinese Communist Party is sending a message to Chinese-Australians: toe the party line or risk getting yourself or your family tortured in China. By threatening Chinese-Australians in this way, China’s communist leaders are attempting to undermine cohesiveness of Australia’s successful multicultural democracy.
The fate suffered by Yang, Kovrig and Spavor could well await others working in China — or even Hong Kong. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, announced that reputable non-government organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the National Endowment for Democracy would be sanctioned for supposedly "odious behaviour" in Hong Kong. This follows China’s implementation of a 2017 law requiring foreign NGOs to register with China’s Ministry of Public Security, giving Beijing effective veto power over NGO operations on the mainland.
Working in China as a foreign academic, journalist or NGO worker has become dangerous. The Australian government must work in tandem with Canada and other like-minded partners such as Japan and the United States to push for immediate the release of Kovrig, Spavor and Yang. Diplomatic efforts need to be stepped up and costs need to be levelled against the Chinese Communist Party for its brazen contempt for international civil society.
Australia and its partners should all agree to raise travel warnings for China as the risk of arbitrary detention is now unacceptably high.
China’s leadership is making the country unsafe for many. It’s time that Australia publicly recognised this unfortunate reality.
Charlie Lyons Jones is a researcher in the Defence and Strategy Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.