Yang Hengjun has been detained in China.
Yang Hengjun has been detained in China.

Trapped Australian’s 48 days of hell

IT IS a tale of two men in serious trouble.

Hakeem Al-Araibi, a young Bahraini footballer who was granted refugee status in Australia, spent months trapped in a Thai prison.

He was released after an impressive international campaign, led by former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, demanding his freedom.

Contrast that with the fate of Chinese-born Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was detained in China under mysterious circumstances in January.

There has been little outrage. No public campaign. And Dr Yang is still locked up.

Australian Yang Hengjun detained in Beijing
Australian Yang Hengjun detained in Beijing

FORTY-EIGHT DAYS OF HELL

Dr Yang is a writer, democratic activist and former Chinese diplomat who became an Australian citizen in the early 2000s.

As a blogger, he has written thousands of articles promoting the rule of law, democracy and human rights and built up a large following in China.

He was taken into custody on January 19 after flying from New York, where he lives, to Guangzhou. China did not tell Australia he had been detained until January 23, three days later.

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at Sydney's University of Technology and a friend of Dr Yang, told news.com.au China only admitted Dr Yang was in their custody after reports of the arrest appeared in the media, leading Australia to ask about him.

"The Chinese authorities had not informed the Australian government until the media reports," Dr Feng said.

"If there's no media report, there's nothing to lead to the government inquiring."

It has now been 48 days. Dr Yang still has not been charged with a crime and has not been given access to lawyers.

Officials from China's foreign ministry say he is suspected of "endangering national security" and is being held under "residential surveillance" at an undisclosed location in Beijing.

"We would describe it as home detention. As Dr Yang doesn't have a home in Beijing, he is being held in a similar situation as opposed to being held in a prison," Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said in January.

Human rights organisations - and Dr Feng - believe China's so-called "residential surveillance" system is more sinister than that.

"The authorities can detain someone for as long as six months without laying a formal charge. When they do not have enough evidence, they do that," Dr Feng said.

He said Dr Yang could face "round the clock interrogation" in an attempt to force a confession.

Yang Hengjun. Picture: AP
Yang Hengjun. Picture: AP

CHINA'S CONVENIENT EXCUSE

Australian consular officials have met with Dr Yang twice, most recently on February 26, where "the issue of legal representation was discussed".

"Australia remains concerned that Mr Yang has not had access to legal representation during his detention, as we would for any Australian who is detained for lengthy periods of time overseas," a DFAT spokesperson told news.com.au.

"Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further detail."

But the more critical meeting may have occurred on the afternoon of January 25. Dr Feng claims consular officials handled it "very poorly".

He said Dr Yang's wife, Yuan Rui Juan, had asked the embassy to tell her husband she had appointed the well-known human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping to act on his behalf.

Mr Mo has handled a number of sensitive cases in China, including that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

"Dr Yang's wife made it very clear to the embassy that he already had a lawyer," Dr Feng said.

He alleged the consular officials made two mistakes during their meeting with Dr Yang.

First, they failed to convey the message from his wife. Second, they provided Dr Yang with a list of about 30 law firms to choose from. Mr Mo's firm was not on the list.

Unaware that he already had a lawyer, and knowing nothing about the firms on the list, Dr Yang "randomly picked" the first one, Lin Tang & Co, and wrote a letter of authorisation for it.

Three days later, on January 25, Mr Mo and his colleague Shang Baojun requested a meeting with Dr Yang. China's state security bureau responded by telling the pair Dr Yang did not want their services.

In other words, China used the letter of authorisation Dr Yang signed for Lin Tang & Co as a convenient excuse to stop his lawyers from seeing him.

When Dr Yang was told about the situation at his second meeting with consular officials, he told them he accepted his wife's decision to hire Mr Mo's firm.

Dr Feng Chongyi. Picture: Jenny Evans
Dr Feng Chongyi. Picture: Jenny Evans

AUSTRALIA'S RESPONSE 'VERY, VERY WEAK'

Dr Feng said he "absolutely" thought there should be a stronger push for Dr Yang's release, more along the lines of the campaign to free Mr Al-Araibi.

He said an Australian citizen had been placed in "illegal detention without legal representation" based on a "very vague, broad charge of so-called espionage".

"For a charge of espionage, you have to stipulate which country he or she is working for as a spy. The Chinese government didn't do that. It's very vague," he said.

"The Australian government has an obligation to ask for the immediate release of their citizen rather than saying in these very soft words that it's a police matter under Chinese law. Very, very weak."

Dr Feng said he believed the government's subdued response to Dr Yang's detention could put other Australians at risk.

"If you allow this to become a precedent, then the authorities can simply detain anyone for any political consideration," he said.

"My suspicion is that they (the government) want to maintain a good relationship for trade."

Dr Feng fears China will hold his friend indefinitely. When Dr Yang's six months are up, the security bureau could simply "raise another accusation" and restart the clock.

"It depends whether the public or the Australian government can push hard enough," he said.

Reporters Without Borders says there are more than 60 journalists and writers behind bars in China, including the award-winning photographer Lu Guang.

In the organisation's 2018 World Press Freedom Index, China ranked 176th out of 180 countries.


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