UPDATE: There are fears the Australian-Chinese novelist transferred without charge into criminal detention in Beijing yesterday (July 18), could be interrogated for up to another seven months.
Yang Hengjun, who has a doctorate from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and once worked as a Chinese diplomat, has been without access to lawyers or his family since January 19, when he was detained on suspicion of espionage.
The 54-year-old and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang, who has been prevented from leaving the country because of the allegations against her husband, had travelled to China to visit family.
Friend and Associate Professor in China Studies at UTS Dr Feng Chongyi, spoke to Yuan at her parents home in Shanghai this morning (July 19).
She also sent him a copy of the notification she was given of her husband's transfer from 'residential surveillance... to criminal detention."
"They are a very brave couple," he said. "They will not yield to pressure."
Dr Feng condemned the decision to transfer Dr Yang into "the worst form of detention" just as the six month deadline to charge him had passed.
"So far, secret police have not got a confession [so] they cannot arrest him. [This] means they have another excuse to continue their investigation."
He explains that criminal detention means Chinese authorities could extend the time a person is held without charge, for up to seven months. After that, the detainee can access a lawyer, although it may be one assigned by the state.
Today, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne released Australia's strongest statement yet in response to Dr Yang's transfer to criminal detention.
"The Government has expressed concern about Dr Yang's welfare and the conditions under which he is held. And we have asked for clarification regarding the reasons for Dr Yang's detention. If he is being detained for his political views, then he should be released... We expect basic standards of justice and procedural fairness to be met. - Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Dr Feng welcomed the tougher stand after months of calling for an end to "soft diplomacy".
"Australia’s situation in the trade war is contributing to his detention, I think," he said. "We cannot just ignore it anymore."
He says Dr Yang is experiencing, "round the clock intimidation and isolation... likely experiencing 24 hour torture."
And Dr Feng would know.
In 2017, he was detained by the Chinese government when he was also visiting family, but he doesn't easily discuss his experiences or his arrest. It was only through contacts and 'diplomacy' that he was able to negotiate his release.
“I have been very lucky. It was a miracle. But now they no longer tolerate me."
UTS associate professor Chongyi Feng reunioned with his daughter Yunsi Feng at home in Sydney suburb this morning. pic.twitter.com/crjqG7Q9Zz— chen yonglin (@chen_yonglin) April 2, 2017
Dr Feng first arrived in Australia in 1993, terrified of the “violent changes in the 1980s”, which included the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre.
“We are a special kind of exiles, those who left after Tiananmen. We still have the hope that China will become a democracy and improve their rule of law."
Since becoming an Australian citizen, he has been an advocate of constitutional democracy and of human rights serving as a foundation of governance.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can do anything to harm people and dissenters suffer so much.”
He believes his detention, and that of Dr Yang's, are part of the Chinese government’s broader goal to strictly control the spread of information and to punish those who criticise the regime.
As of 2019, China ranks 177 out of the 180 countries surveyed by Reports Without Borders, for freedom of information and media.
The significantly low rating is attributed to President Xi Jinping’s tightened grip on information released to the Chinese public, along with reports that his censorship model is gaining traction internationally.
Nathan Duong is one of the 1.3 million people in Australia’s Chinese community. He, like a sizeable majority of Chinese Australians, maintains a close connection to China and its customs and culture.
“My experience of being Chinese is very different to what it would have been 10 years ago, as I am Cantonese and I have stronger connections to South China and Hong Kong”.
For Duong, consumption of Chinese media allows him to learn Cantonese and Mandarin and build up his cultural identity. Though he does tend to notice governmental influence.
“At home I am able to connect to the Chinese media outlets such as CCTV… [where] there is often propaganda for the state," he said.
A crackdown on educational materials, academia and intellectual media is also becoming an increasing concern for many in mainland China.
“I have family within Hong Kong who write educational material for schools, and they have openly said over the last 10 years [that] their work has been getting harder, as they are now bound by [the] Chinese government in what they publish,” he says.
Tom Sear of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and colleagues Titus Chen and Michael Jensen from the University of Canberra studied the patterns of Australian related content on approximately 50 of the most popular Chinese accounts on WeChat.
They found that in 2018, 2.5 million people living in Australia were using WeChat - with the majority of them being part of the Chinese diaspora.
“Social media is changing the nature of democracy and how political dynamics are discussed," Mr Sears said.
"In 2017 the Chinese government told people that Australia is a very anti-China nation... the question we were left with (after the research) was does the way the CCP is targeting Australia reflect the way it targets people in China?”.
Dr Feng is similarly concerned.
“Chinese state power is filtering overseas and all Chinese communities could be under the influence of CCP. It prevents what we call "migrate realisation" [which means] they will remain indoctrinated”.
- Story, Paige Tonna. Additional editing, Sue Stephenson