Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 18 January 2022

 Yang latest to suffer China’s secrets and lies

2 hours ago January 18, 2022

Yang Hengjun, who has been incarcerated in appalling conditions in China, is an unlikely figure to rally Australian empathy and support. In a former life he appears to have been associated with the Chinese security services. He came to Sydney in 2000 and was awarded a PhD by the University of Technology Sydney, supervised by Feng Chongyi, the eminent expert on human rights and China.

On returning to China exactly three years ago, with his wife and daughter, to visit his sick brother, Yang was seized at Guangzhou airport. Eventually he was charged with spying for an unnamed country, at a one-day closed-door trial last May from which Australia’s persistent ambassador, Graham Fletcher, was physically turned away. The outcome of the trial remains unclear.

After leaving China, Yang had become widely known as an author of spy fiction and of frank and lively blogs, but immediately before his arrest he was involved in business while also a visiting scholar at New York’s Columbia University.

So, a complex figure. But he is one who should command respect and backing from all Australians. Canberra has provided strong support – but its concerns are unlikely to gain a hearing in Beijing, which has largely turned its back on us.

Yang chose – like other valuable immigrants, notably including many from China – to become Australian while studying here, coming to admire our democratic system and spirit of fairness and openness.

Bravely, despite being increasingly plagued by ailments, he has resisted China’s security apparatus interrogation tools that usually succeed in ensuring that everyone charged, or even arrested, confesses guilt. All those accused are deemed – whatever the evidence or none – to be guilty of a core crime, that of failing to acknowledge the righteousness of the Chinese Communist Party’s control and of its authority over every aspect of their lives.

“I’m not guilty,” Yang has said recently, “but they treat me like dirt here and they tortured me.” Family and friends fear he may face a similar fate to famous Nobel Peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of illness eight years into an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”.

Within the CCP’s current worldview, it matters little that someone like Yang has freely chosen to become Australian. In fact, such a shift is perceived to deepen his culpability.

Yang has written from jail that his “Chinese dream” – appropriating cleverly one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hallmark phrases – comprises law and fairness, social justice, freedom and democracy.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said about Yang’s plight last year that Canberra expects “basic international standards of justice to be met”.

In today’s China, the prevailing standards are instead “socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics” and “Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law”.

Xi has shaken up every facet of Chinese life, including the justice system – to a degree making local courts more efficient and less arbitrary in “non-sensitive” cases. But he has also intensified the grip of the party’s Political and Legal Affairs Commissions that operate from national to village levels and have oversight of judges, prosecutors and police.

Under Xi, the range of issues deemed “sensitive” and where the state judiciary is given no discretion has been extended.

Yang’s case clearly seems to fit that secretive frame, as does that of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, detained for 18 months without charge. Cheng has been allowed no direct contact with her young children, who are now being raised by her mother in Melbourne.

The shameless manner in which the PRC authorities handled the Meng Wanzhou case underlines the fully political and instrumental nature of the Chinese legal system, and the pain of those innocently trapped in it.

Meng, the chief financial officer of giant Chinese corporation Huawei, founded by her father, was arrested in Canada in December 2018 following a US extradition request involving fraud and evading Iran sanctions. Freed on bail, she stayed in a luxurious mansion she already owned there.

Nine days after her arrest, two Canadians well respected in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested there and imprisoned harshly on vague spying charges. Spavor was sentenced last August to 11 years’ jail.

China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, described Ottawa’s consequent accusations of hostage diplomacy as irresponsible and “gross interference” in China’s judicial independence, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the cases were “completely different in nature”.

But in September, within hours of Meng being freed to leave Canada, Kovrig and Spavor were flying home. Any notion that this was coincidental is laughable.

The party has positioned itself above the state, sovereign not only within China’s borders but, in some senses where people of Chinese ethnicity are concerned, beyond them. And it sees enemies everywhere.

Thus, dangers unrelated to Covid may lurk for visitors to China. But travelling there is almost impossible anyway, with China’s strict Covid elimination strategy likely to continue until the dominant 2022 event, the 20th Party Congress in November, when Xi’s rule will be extended at least five years.

And the Beijing launch of the Winter Olympic Games on February 4 will be clouded not only by Covid but also by many state-driven cruelties including those suffered by Yang Hengjun.

Rowan Callick is an Industry Fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute.

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