The unexplained arrest of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun in China is a jolting start to bilateral relations in 2019. It is a challenge to this country’s values and interests that no Australian government – current or prospective – can ignore.
By Professor Rory Medcalf
After the confrontation of the past few years over issues such as foreign interference and China’s strategic ambitions, there had been hopes in political, corporate and diplomatic circles for a return to business as usual.
This is captured in the term “mutual respect”, used both by Chinese officials and the Australian government, including Defence Minister Christopher Pyne on the eve of his visit to Beijing yesterday.
But the detention of Australian Mr Yang – held so far for six days without a confirmed charge – suggests respect is sadly not mutual and that there may be no such thing as business as usual with Xi Jinping’s China.
It is to be hoped this is all a misunderstanding and Mr Yang will soon be free.
One troubling explanation, though, is that this is another case of what is becoming known as “hostage diplomacy” by the Chinese party-state. This would make it somehow linked to China’s political detentions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and the extradition proceedings in Canada against prominent Chinese national and Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Perhaps the punishment of Mr Yang signals Chinese displeasure at Australia’s security stance against 5G investment by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, or at Australia’s (actually quite guarded) support of Canada in seeking its citizens’ release.
Or, more likely, the Communist Party was waiting to punish Mr Yang for previous criticism of the authoritarian system.
Mr Yang is a popular writer with a big social media following, and has expressed dissenting views over the years. Perhaps his arrest now is meant as an intimidating reminder to others that the party-state must always be obeyed.
If so, this reflects deep insecurity in the Chinese system, heightened by fears about slowing economic growth and the consent of the governed.
Whatever the background, the Australian government must now decide what to do.
Defence Minister Pyne will want to focus his China visit on the big strategic tensions in the Indo-Pacific – which themselves bring scant cheer.
But no self-respecting Australian government figure can evade the question of the fate of an Australian citizen.
The government’s immediate priorities should be securing the consular access to which our compatriot is entitled, advocating for his welfare, and gaining information to reach a decision on whether also to demand his release.
However there is a bigger policy question affecting the many Australians whose lives and careers involve visiting China.
After its nationals were taken hostage, Canada reinforced official travel advice to its citizens. It now tells them a plain truth: to exercise a high degree of caution due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.
Last year the United States began warning its citizens along similar lines, as well as about coercive “exit bans”.
The Kovrig and Spavor cases have already caused disquiet in many countries among academics, executives and others who visit China.
Most visitors and expatriates will understandably
feel they have nothing to fear. But the world is learning
that diplomatic winds change abruptly. Many individuals
must now consider the possibility, however slight, that
they could become a political pawn if the timing of their
travel were to coincide with a bilateral dispute.
The Yang arrest heightens those worries, including for Australians and especially but not solely those of Chinese origin.
Unless Beijing stops using detention for leverage, it is a matter of time before many more countries, including Australia, sharpen their travel advice to warn specifically of the new risk environment in China.
Currently Australia’s official travel advice for China is to “exercise normal safety precautions”, the mildest warning on a four-point scale.
This is on par with advice for travellers to places like Britain, Germany and New Zealand. It is a level below the warnings to Australians visiting, say, France and India, where the advice is to “exercise a high degree of caution” (presumably because of dangers like terrorism).
Australia’s China advice includes detailed warnings about the need to observe local laws, exit bans and China’s non-recognition of dual citizenship. But there is no specific mention of the risk of arbitrary arrest or the way this is being heightened by a worsening global security situation.
Of course, Australia policy should proceed carefully, respectfully and based on facts. But there is nothing enduring to gain from failing to protect our values, interests and citizens out of fear that China will try to put Australia into some kind of diplomatic or economic freezer.
In recent years China has found itself threatening harm not only to Canada and Australia, but also, among others, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Norway, India, the Philippines and South Korea and the United States. China is also increasingly at odds with Germany and France. If this is the freezer, then it’s a crowded place.
Solidarity among nations is needed to help protect their citizens from arbitrary arrest in China. This would send a clear message about the acceptable foundations for engagement in a globalised world.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Review