BEIJING — The Australian government said Wednesday that it is seeking information about why China is holding one of its citizens, writer Yang Hengjun, who friends say is probably in the custody of state security officials.
The case of Yang, a prominent novelist and former Chinese official who gave up his nationality and immigrated to Australia, could represent a fresh instance of China detaining a citizen of a country allied with the United States amid a globe-spanning standoff.
The detention comes a month after China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what was seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, at the behest of the United States. The Justice Department said Tuesday that it would proceed with a formal request to extradite Meng on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Australian officials inquired about Yang with their Chinese counterparts Tuesday night, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Chinese authorities told it Yang is being held in Beijing, without giving additional details. “The department is seeking to clarify the nature of this detention and to obtain consular access to him,” the department said Wednesday.
Two friends of Yang’s, U.S.-based publisher Shi Wei and Feng Chongyi, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney, told The Washington Post that the writer took off from New York on a China Southern Airlines flight for Guangzhou but fell out of touch after he landed early Saturday.
Yang’s wife, Yuan Ruijun, who was traveling with him and their two children, told friends that she was questioned in Guangzhou and that her husband was detained by state security, according to Feng.
Yuan later also fell out of contact, but not before she sent friends a picture of the Beijing airport without explanation Sunday. The picture signaled that she felt compelled to travel to the Chinese capital but was not at liberty to say why, Feng said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that she did not have information about Yang’s whereabouts and would look into the matter with relevant agencies.
Supporters say Yang has been an outspoken writer who has been a thorn in the government’s side for more than a decade. He was occasionally “invited” to have tea with state security but otherwise traveled unhindered to China as recently as several months ago, they say.
Something changed in the past few months to prompt his alleged detention.
“My judgment is this is linked directly to the Huawei case,” said Feng, referring to the possibility that China is taking a harder line against citizens of countries aligned with the United States.
It was not the first time that Yang has been held in China, which he left in the 1990s following a stint at China’s Foreign Ministry.
For years, Yang publicly joked that he was frequently recruited to be an asset for foreign intelligence. He wrote spy novels about China and the United States as well as criticism of Chinese politics that was seen in intellectual circles as unvarnished yet relatively moderate.
After he was detained in 2011, also during a trip to Guangzhou, Yang declined to publicly discuss the experience. But he wrote in a blog post that he would continue to work as a “calm intermediary” who pushed China — “our nation” — to become a strong, prosperous, free and democratic country.
In the past six months, relations between Beijing and U.S. allies have soured dramatically over dueling allegations of politically motivated arrests. China has viewed the international backlash against Huawei, including Canada’s seizure of Meng, as a campaign orchestrated by the United States to undermine a symbol of corporate China’s international success. It has warned Western capitals that they face severe consequences if they side with Washington.
“We need to select counter-targets and make those countries be beaten very painfully. We argue that in this complex game, China should focus on the Five Eye alliance countries, especially Australia, New Zealand, and Canada,” the Communist Party-run newspaper Global Times said in a December commentary. “They follow the United States to harm China’s interests.”
Australia, which maintains important trade ties with China, defied Chinese warnings this month and sided with Western allies in a statement that expressed concern about China’s detention of the two Canadians.
Australian national security officials have mostly echoed their U.S. counterparts, issuing warnings about the security risks of Huawei participating in the country’s telecom infrastructure.
After Australia and New Zealand banned Huawei from building their domestic 5G networks in the fall, Huawei Chairman Guo Ping criticized unspecified countries for their “incredibly unfair” and “malicious” treatment of his company.