Yang, a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, is held under “coercive measures” in Beijing by the Ministry of State Security, ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said.
Earlier Thursday, Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne told reporters during his visit to Beijing that Yang was being detained in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a form of detention that allows Chinese authorities to interrogate suspects for up to six months at secret locations without access to lawyers or family members.
Two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, are being held under similar conditions — and on similar national security grounds. Canada and the United States say those two cases are political retribution for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou. The arrest, requested by the United States in a case involving alleged violations of sanctions against Iran, infuriated China.
Australia has publicly sided with Canada and the United States and this month demanded answers from China about Spavor and Kovrig.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne played down the possibility that an Australian citizen was the latest to become ensnared in the increasingly bitter row between Beijing and Western countries.
“At this stage, there is no evidence of such a connection” between Yang’s detention and Australia’s criticism of China’s detention of the Canadians, Payne told reporters Thursday. “I’d be concerned if there was an indication of that.”
Still, the case adds another irritant to China’s relations with U.S. allies over a range of issues, including China’s alleged espionage, unfair trade practices, human rights violations and disregard for the rule of law.
China has hit back in recent months, arguing that the gathering anti-Chinese sentiment in the West reflects an unfair, U.S.-led campaign to hobble its rise.
China’s disclosure of a national security investigation against Yang almost certainly heralds a protracted diplomatic tussle over his fate — and possibly a lengthy punishment for the China-born writer in a judicial system in which prosecutors almost always win if they bring formal charges.
A former Chinese diplomat who immigrated to Australia in the 1990s, Yang was previously detained by state security agents in Guangzhou in 2011; he was released after two days. In the years since, he has been briefly interrogated during trips to China but never held for long, friends say.
Feng Chongyi, a professor at University of Technology Sydney and an academic adviser to Yang, said friends grew worried and decided to notify the Australian government after Yang went incommunicado for several days this week.