BEIJING — An Australian writer who was detained in China last week is suspected of “endangering national security,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday, confirming that he is the third foreigner to have been detained on that ominous charge since last month.
The writer, Yang Hengjun, arrived in the southern city of Guangzhou on Friday on a flight from New York, despite warnings from friends about the risks of returning to China, where he was born, at a tense time. Officers took him away before he and his wife and child could catch a connecting flight to Shanghai, according to friends of Mr. Yang who spoke to his family.
The Australian government confirmed on Wednesday that Mr. Yang, 53, had been detained. But the severity of the charges against him was unclear until Thursday, when Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Beijing that Mr. Yang was suspected of crimes related to “state security.” She referred to Mr. Yang as Yang Jun, and later said that was his officially registered name.
Beijing’s state security bureau detained Mr. Yang “on suspicion of criminal activities endangering national security,” Ms. Hua said at a regularly scheduled news briefing. “Currently, the case is still under investigation under the law.”
Ms. Hua did not say what specific crimes Mr. Yang was accused of. But “endangering national security” is a sweeping set of potential charges that include espionage and political subversion. Two Canadians were detained in China on the same broad accusation last month.
Those detentions have created a deep rift between China and Canada. And Mr. Yang’s case appears likely to similarly strain Australia’s relations with China at a volatile time, and to fan broader criticism about the increasingly heavy-handed use of vague security laws under China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Already, China’s handling of the case has prompted polite criticism and prodding from two Australian government ministers.
Before Ms. Hua’s announcement, the Australian minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, said in Sydney that she was seeking “further clarification from the Chinese authorities as a priority” about Mr. Yang’s detention. Ms. Payne also pressed for China to allow Australian Embassy officials to visit him.
“We have requested and we do expect consular access at the earliest possible opportunity in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement,” Ms. Payne said at a news conference in Sydney.
But it appears that Mr. Yang is not being held in a conventional police station or detention center.
Ms. Hua said the Beijing state security authorities had imposed “compulsory coercive measures” on Mr. Yang, using a term that can refer to detention outside the usual settings. Christopher Pyne, the Australian defense minister, who was in Beijing on Thursday for previously scheduled talks, told Australian reporters there that Mr. Yang was under “residential surveillance” — which can mean being held in a home, hotel or other informal site.
Mr. Pyne also pressed for Australian access to Mr. Yang. “There have been meetings between the Australian government and the Chinese government to talk about the situation with Mr. Yang,” he said. “But as yet he is not being provided with consular support.”
Mr. Pyne also said that it had taken four days for the Chinese government to notify Australia of Mr. Yang’s detention, a day longer than required under rules agreed upon by the two governments.
“Obviously that is disappointing,” Mr. Pyne said. “We will be raising that, too, with government officials.”
Ms. Hua, the spokeswoman, denied that China had violated the agreement. She said that “the Chinese side informed the Australian side within three days.”
Feng Chongyi, a China scholar who was Mr. Yang’s Ph.D. adviser at the University of Technology, Sydney, said it was “essential that the Australian Embassy in Beijing force them to allow access.” Mr. Feng, who was briefly detained by the Chinese authorities in 2017, said there was a “very high risk that they can subject Yang Hengjun to torture.”
“They can use all kinds of leverage — using your family, tell you that your family will be bankrupt or telling you things they’ve said,” Mr. Feng said. “They will use all kinds of leverage to force a confession.”
China’s detention last month of the two Canadians — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat turned policy analyst, and Michael Spavor, a businessman — occurred less than two weeks after the Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications equipment company.
Ms. Meng is on bail in Vancouver, facing a likely court battle over whether she can be extradited to the United States, where prosecutors have accused her of taking part in fraudulent bank transactions for deals that violated American sanctions on Iran. Supporters of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have said that the Chinese authorities appeared to have engineered their detention to put pressure on Canada to let Ms. Meng return to China.
It is less clear, though, whether Mr. Yang’s detention is related to broader tensions between China and Australia.
Mr. Yang, who worked for the Chinese Foreign Ministry before setting out on his own as a novelist and commentator, became an Australian citizen in 2002. After migrating, he remained an influential voice in China with a large internet following. He has used his online presence to offer lectures, current affairs commentaries, advice on migration to Western countries and online sales of health supplements while also staying within the bounds of official acceptance.
Critics say that even as he cast himself as an independent voice, Mr. Yang went out of his way to soothe the Chinese government. He has spent the past two years with his family in New York, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
In recent years, Australia has become more wary of Chinese political and military influence, passing a sweeping new espionage bill last year to counter foreign interference, even as Australia’s economy has benefited from China’s enormous appetite for raw materials and agricultural goods. And last year, Australia said that Huawei could not take part in a planned rollout of 5G, the next generation of mobile phone networks.
But Ms. Payne, the foreign minister, said she saw no evidence that Mr. Yang’s detention was connected to the detention of the Canadians or to Australia’s decision on Huawei.
“I don’t believe there’s currently any evidence of such a connection,” she said. “If there were one, I would be concerned.”
Orignially published in NYT.