An Australian man of Chinese origin has been arrested in China after being accused of ‘espionage’, the foreign ministry in Canberra said, in the latest of a series of detentions of foreign nationals visiting the mainland.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on Tuesday that Yang Hengjun, an outspoken pro-democracy activist, has been held in Beijing in “harsh conditions”.
“We have serious concerns for Dr Yang’s welfare, and about the conditions under which he is being been held,” Payne added.
Yang, who was born in China, was detained without charge in the southern city of Guangzhou in January amid growing tension between Australia and its largest trading partner.
Yang, who made a rare return to China from a trip to the US, was formally arrested on Friday, August 23.
“If Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released,” Payne said.
“We expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met.”
According to reports, Yang had served in the Chinese foreign ministry before moving to Australia, where he worked as a writer and academic.
China’s near silence about Yang’s fate and the refusal to grant consular access has been a point of friction in relations that have markedly deteriorated in recent months.
There is a growing concern in Australia about Beijing’s influence on domestic politics and growing military clout in the Pacific.
On Monday, an official corruption inquiry heard that a well-connected Chinese property developer delivered an equivalent of about US$67,000 in cash to the opposition Labour Party’s headquarters before a 2015 election.
The man, Huang Xiangmo, was effectively banned from returning to Australia in February.
Australia has traditionally been keen to avoid friction with its biggest trading partner, but Payne’s statement was unusually strongly worded.
“Dr Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” she said.
“Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits.”
Payne said she had raised the case five times with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, in person and via letters.
Yang had initially been held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” before being moved to “criminal detention”, his lawyer told AFP news agency.
On Saturday, the Chinese government released Simon Cheng, a 28-year-old Hong Kong resident and staff member of the British consulate, after several days of detention.
Cheng is both a Hong Kong permanent resident and a holder of a British National Overseas (BNO) passport, a special document granted to people in the former British colony. A BNO entitles holders to UK consular assistance but it does not equate to citizenship.
The Chinese government does not recognise dual nationality for Chinese nationals.
In the case of Cheng, Beijing said that it is “entirely an internal affair.”