Regime Security Trumps Relationships For Beijing – Analysis

By Andrew Chubb

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s June 2024 tour of Australia was widely viewed as signalling Beijing’s desire to bring an end to years of frozen diplomatic relations, political disputes and economic coercion.

But the fate of Australian writer and businessman Yang Jun, known under his pen name Yang Hengjun, hangs unresolved after the visit — both as an ongoing human tragedy and as an indication of where relations with Australia sit among the priorities of President Xi Jinping’s China.

Since the election of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in 2022, Beijing has sought to repair ties with Australia, allowing ministerial contact and gradually easing restrictions on Australian exports. Following three years of COVID-19 restrictions, Xi signalled China’s tactical reprioritisation of economic growth and openness to foreign business in December 2022.

The suspended death sentence dealt to Yang in February 2024 clearly demonstrated that the two key themes of Li’s trip — building foreign relationships and economic growth — remain firmly subordinate to regime security.

Yang’s case contrasts with that of former CGTN host and Australian citizen Cheng Lei, who was released in October 2023 after spending three years in a Chinese prison on national security charges. Five months before her release, Albanese publicly demanded ‘proper justice’ for ‘Australians such as Cheng Lei’. But while the improvement in bilateral relations enabled Cheng’s repatriation, the Chinese authorities have only doubled down on Yang’s harsh punishment.

In practice, Yang is likely facing life imprisonment rather than execution, which suggests the suspended death sentence was intended to generate psychological effects. In this regard it succeeded — Yang’s family was ‘shocked and devastated by this news’, describing it as ‘the extreme end of worst expectations’. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the Australian government was ‘appalled’.

The particulars of the case are, unsurprisingly, unclear. Deng Yuwen, an associate of Yang and fellow critic of Xi’s government, pointed out shortly after Yang’s arrest in 2019 that he had kept a relatively low public profile for several years prior to his detention.

Yang was once an official in China’s Foreign Ministry but became an outspoken critic of the party-state after he moved to Australia in the late 1990s. His trilogy of spy novels published between 2002 and 2005 depicted the world of Chinese–US espionage and double agents so vividly that many concluded he had worked for China’s Ministry of State Security in the past. This was subsequently confirmed in public reporting.

Under the pen name Yang Hengjun, he maintained several blogs through the early 2010s, attracting a substantial following with his trenchant criticism of Beijing’s encouragement of pro-state nationalist activism and increasingly assertive and repressive policy direction. But in more recent years he had reportedly focused more on his online shopping business. Prior to his detention, he had travelled to and from China frequently, apparently believing he had protection inside China.

While the case will likely remain shrouded in secrecy, the sentencing carries a couple of implications.

One implication is that Chinese concerns about regime security not only trump economic goals but also political relationships. Despite discussion of China’s supposed culturally-inflected emphasis on relationships over actors, the latter frequently override the former where security threats are perceived.

The imprisonment may indicate increasing concern among Xi Jinping’s security services about its own people. China’s handling of Yang’s case seems designed to telegraph a message to those who were once part of the system and might be contemplating speaking out — return home at your peril.

Ahead of Premier Li’s visit, Albanese said he would raise Yang’s case. The Australian government should redouble its efforts to repatriate Yang by clearly linking the recovery of the bilateral relationship and trade ties with respect for the human rights of Australian citizens.

Yang’s ongoing confinement — and the threat it telegraphs to others — violates internationally recognised rights of Australian citizens and residents. Aside from basic freedoms of speech and association, the right to return to one’s home country is also recognised under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed.

Canberra should make clear that Yang’s treatment is itself an impediment to trade, in part because the broader risks of detention do not solely impact Yang. June 2024 polling found more than 70 per cent of Australians considered ‘the risk of arbitrary detention’ in China a concern. While Beijing almost certainly views the issue in the short-term context of deterring defections, coercing critics and keeping dissenters out, the fact that Yang was detained while on a business trip is threatening to a wide range of groups — especially among the Chinese-Australian community.

Friends and associates of Yang have urged Canberra to demand he be granted medical parole, particularly in light of claims of torture and deteriorating health. The agonising case of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of medical neglect in 2017, is a reminder both of the fate that can befall brave Chinese critics when forced to go it alone and of the international reputational costs to Beijing.

  • About the author: Andrew Chubb is Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University and a Fellow of the Asia Society’s Center for China Analysis.
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum