The case adds to worsening friction between Beijing and Western democracies, including Australia, as the Communist Party takes increasingly assertive action to counter what it perceives as U.S.-led efforts to contain China’s rise.
Australia was “very concerned and disappointed” to learn that Yang had been formally arrested Friday on espionage allegations and that he would remain in criminal detention in China, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Tuesday.
“Dr. Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” Payne said. “Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr. Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits.”
China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday confirmed that Yang, who is also known as Yang Jun, was suspected of spying, adding that he was in good health and that Chinese national security departments were handling the matter.
“China deplores Australia’s statement on this case,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a regular briefing. “Australia should duly respect the legal sovereignty of China and must not interfere by any means, as China is handling the case according to law.”
Yang was detained in January when he traveled from New York, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou with his wife and two children. His family members were allowed to continue their journey to Shanghai, but Yang has been held in Beijing without charge since then.
He was seized one month after China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have since been arrested and charged with serious offenses.
Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who had been working as a China analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, is accused of spying and stealing sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China. Spavor, a businessman who promoted exchanges with North Korea, was Kovrig’s “main intelligence contact” and provided information to him, the authorities said.
None of the men has had access to a lawyer or family members since being detained.
The cases appear to have links to disputes between Beijing and Western governments over Huawei, the Chinese technology giant that is trying to become the world leader in 5G systems.
Spavor and Kovrig were detained just 10 days after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and daughter of its founder, at the behest of the United States. The Justice Department is seeking to extradite Meng on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Officials from the United States and Australia have said that Huawei and its equipment may be used by China to spy on the West, and they have barred Huawei from participating in their 5G telecom networks.
One of Yang’s close friends, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, said China was using the writer as a hostage to apply political pressure to Australia and the United States to relax restrictions on Huawei.
The seven-month period that Yang has already spent in detention demonstrates that the Chinese security services have been unable to extract a confession, Feng said.
“That is an outrageous charge, and they have not produced any evidence,” he said. “The Australian government must use all its power to convince the Chinese government to lay all its evidence on the table. Pressure from the Australian government or public is needed for the Chinese authorities to back down.”
Australia’s relations with China, its top trading partner, have also grown chillier after Canberra’s passage last year of laws designed to prevent foreign interference in the country’s political system. More recently, officials have voiced concerns about the actions of Australia-based supporters of Beijing, particularly Chinese students, who have sought to stifle shows of support for anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, China rejected a Group of Seven leaders’ statement reaffirming support for the 1984 Sino-British agreement setting out the terms of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty.
“China expresses strong discontent and firm opposition to the carping remarks and finger-pointing about Hong Kong at the G-7 leaders summit,” Geng, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing. He accused the G-7 nations of “harboring evil intentions.”
A. Odysseus Patrick in Sydney and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.