SYDNEY: The Australian government said on Wednesday that it is seeking information about a Chinese-Australian writer who has been reported missing in China in what a friend suspects is part of a Chinese backlash against Canada’s arrest of a top Chinese telecommunications executive.
Novelist and influential online commentator Yang Hengjun was a Chinese diplomat before he became an Australian citizen. Friends say he had been living in the United States with his wife and stepdaughter and had returned to China late last week.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement it is “seeking information about an Australian citizen who has been reported missing in China. Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment”.
Australian consular assistance can include liaising with local authorities, including local police when an Australian has been reported missing.
Yang’s friend, University of Technology Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, said he believes Yang is being detained in Beijing by the Ministry of State Security.
The disappearance comes a month after China’s detention of two Canadians, entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, in what was widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of the US.
Feng, who has been in contact with Yang’s family and friends, said Yang’s disappearance was “directly linked to the Huawei case”
“I see his arrest as the extension of Chinese hostage diplomacy to take him as a hostage to press the Australian government and the Canadian government, American government,” Feng told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Feng was detained in China in 2017 near the end of a three-week trip during which he was researching human rights lawyers, and was questioned by security services for several days before he was allowed to return to Australia. He said on his return to Sydney that he was unable to discuss the details of his experience.
Yang’s disappearance comes ahead of a visit by Australia’s Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne to China. Pyne left Australia on Tuesday for a week-long visit to Japan, then China and Singapore.
Pyne said the Australia-China defence relationship was a key component of the broader bilateral relationship.
“The government is committed to maintaining a long-term constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests and mutual respect China and Australia’s success will go hand-in-hand,” Pyne said in a statement on Tuesday.
Yang, his wife and her daughter, flew from New York on Jan 18 and arrived in Guangzhou on Jan 19, Feng said. The wife and child then flew on to Shanghai without him, he added.
Feng said he believed Yang and his wife were now both in Beijing after delivering the child to family and friends in Shanghai.
Another friend, former Australian journalist and China analyst John Garnaut, said Yang was “not only brilliant but extraordinarily popular among the Chinese-speaking world and a courageous and committed democrat”.
“This will reverberate globally if authorities do not quickly find an off-ramp,” Garnaut tweeted on Wednesday.
Similar concerns were raised over Yang’s safety in 2011 when he disappeared after calling a friend from a Chinese airport saying he was being followed by three men. He later explained the matter had been a “misunderstanding”. Yang said he had been unwell and switched his phone off.