China confirmed Thursday it had arrested prominent Australian writer and blogger Yang Hengjun on suspicion of endangering national security, the identical accusation used in the recent detention of two Canadian citizens.
The arrest came after Australia criticized China for detaining the Canadians and heightened suspicions that Yang was taken into custody in retaliation for the arrest of the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Yang, a prominent novelist and former Chinese diplomat who gave up his nationality and moved to Australia, disappeared Friday after flying from New York — where he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University — to Guangzhou in southern China. He was detained before he could catch a connecting flight to Shanghai, where he was to meet up with his wife and child. He stopped posting on social media, and for four days his whereabouts were unknown.
Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat now at the Australian National University in Canberra, described Yang’s arrest as “hostage diplomacy” and linked it to the arrests of the two Canadians — Michael Kovrig, an analyst with International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, a businessman who runs a travel company in China arranging trips to North Korea.
Those arrests came after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the company’s founder and one of China’s leading tech billionaires, was detained in Canada at the request of the U.S. and as the U.S.-China trade war was deepening.
Yang’s arrest now “drags Australia into China’s hostage diplomacy,” Medcalf said in a tweet.
“I think … it’s a signal that we are now — not only Australia, but really all democracies, all middle powers — in for a period of sustained tension with China, where the safety of our nationals in China simply cannot be assured,” he said in an interview on Australian radio.
Relations between China and U.S. allies including Canada and Australia have grown poisonous since Meng’s arrest on charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran.
She was ultimately released on bail but ordered to remain in Vancouver while the U.S. pursued extradition.
China said Meng’s arrest was politically motivated and ramped up pressure on Ottawa for her release. Then, with the incident still fresh, China arrested the two Canadian businessmen, drawing complaints that their detention was payback for Meng’s arrest.
Then a third Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, had his 15-year jail sentence in China for drug trafficking converted this month to a death sentence.
As tensions build, both the U.S. and Canada have warned citizens to exercise a high degree of caution when traveling to China.
China’s rhetoric over Meng’s arrest has been more directly aimed at Canada than the U.S., as it strives to reach a trade deal with the Trump administration by March 1. Pressure for the deal has grown in China as its economy has slumped.
Yang, who writes spy thrillers and has been increasingly critical of China in his blogs, was detained in China in 2011 but released after two days.
Asked about his disappearance Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed the arrest but said she had no further information.
“The Australian citizen Yang Jun, due to being suspected of engaging in criminal acts that endangered China’s national security, was recently placed under coercive measures and is being investigated by the Beijing city State Security Bureau,” Hua told reporters.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia expected China to handle Yang’s case “transparently and fairly.” She also said there was no evidence linking his case with the Canadian arrests.
Tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies have worsened, with Washington pressing allies including Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand not to use Huawei technology in 5G networks, given the strategic nature of telecommunications networks. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have now blocked Huawei from their 5G networks, and Canada and Germany are considering following suit. The largest mobile providers in Britain and France also have barred Huawei equipment from their 5G networks.
Many analysts expect a prolonged power rivalry between Washington and Beijing, which would place U.S. allies who trade heavily with China — such as Australia — in an awkward position. China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper warned recently that China should exact a heavy price from U.S. allies who ignored China’s interests, for example by blocking Huawei technology.
“For those countries that seek to ingratiate themselves to the U.S. without regard to China’s interests, China should firmly fight back,” exacting a heavy toll, the newspaper editorial said. It said Canada “crossed the line” with Meng’s arrest but warned that other U.S. allies could find themselves on the wrong side of China as well.
“Australia was the first to follow Washington in blocking Huawei devices,” the editorial continued. “Beijing needs to meticulously select counter-targets to really make them learn a lesson.”
The editorial went on to say: “China is the largest trading partner of both Australia and New Zealand and the second-largest of Canada, thus the country has enough means to counter them.”
Summer Lopez, PEN America director of freedom of expression, said Yang’s disappearance was “a terrifying sign of the Chinese government’s willingness to disappear writers who criticize them, regardless of nationality.” She said it appeared Yang was being held because of his past criticisms of China.
“Yang’s seizure is yet another indicator,” she said, “that the Chinese government’s repression of free expression extends not only to its own citizens but to citizens of other countries.”