Foreign minister Marise Payne says the federal government is “deeply disappointed” that Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been transferred to criminal detention in China, saying he should be released if he is being held “for his political views”.
Payne issued a statement on Friday saying Australia had received formal notification from Chinese authorities of Yang’s transfer to criminal detention. Following Payne’s statement, China’s foreign ministry on Friday said it had taken “compulsory measures” against the Chinese-born writer.
A Chinese public intellectual who has long advocated for democratic reforms in China, Yang has been detained since January in an unknown location in China on suspicion of endangering national security.
Yang’s lawyer Mo Shaoping said on Friday that his family had received notice of his criminal detention, bringing Yang closer to formal charges and a trial.
Mo said authorities had previously said Yang’s detention was related to espionage, which falls under the crime of endangering national security, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or in more serious cases, the death penalty.
Rights advocates had previously hoped Yang would be released and allowed to return to Australia where he has been a citizen since 2002.
Yang’s wife, Yuan Xiaolong, who was banned this month from leaving the country, is still subject to an exit ban, according to the lawyer. She has been told by authorities not to speak to the foreign media.
Payne revealed on Friday that she had twice written to China’s foreign minister, state councillor Wang Yi, calling for “a fair and transparent resolution” to Yang’s situation, and for him to be granted access to his lawyers.
“This has not occurred,” she said on Friday.
“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 have worked tirelessly and in good faith with the Chinese government to advocate for Dr Yang’s interests since he was detained. We expect basic standards of justice and procedural fairness to be met.
“The Australian government is concerned by this development in relation to an Australian citizen. We will continue to press Chinese authorities for fair and humane treatment, in accordance with international norms. Our thoughts are with Dr Yang and his family during this difficult period.”
Payne said Australian embassy officials had visited Yang on six occasions, most recently on 27 June.
“The Australian government is deeply disappointed that Australian citizen and academic Dr Yang Hengjun has been transferred to criminal detention in China,” the foreign minister said.
“The Australian government has raised its concerns about Yang’s case regularly with China at senior levels.”
The elevation in rhetoric from Australia comes amid tensions between the two countries over concerns about potential Chinese interference in national affairs, Huawei and human rights.
This week Payne, said Australia was “deeply concerned” about Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs, an ethnic minority in Xinjiang.
Payne said China had blocked Australia’s attempts to offer consular assistance to dual citizens and their families believed detained in Xinjiang.
Labor’s acting shadow foreign minister, Richard Marles, echoed the government’s call for Yang to be released if he was being held for his political views.
“We call on the Chinese government to clarify the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention and to ensure Dr Yang is treated in a fair, unbiased and transparent manner,” he said.
Yang, a former Chinese diplomat, is a popular writer and blogger known for his spy novels and political commentary.
He is known in online circles as minzhu xiaofan, or “democracy peddler”. “I’m like an old auntie jabbering on, always promoting democracy and repeating its benefits,” he wrote in an article in 2014.
“Dictatorship is always torn down in one night, but good democracy isn’t built in one night.”
Human Rights Watch has urged the government to “vigorously press” for Yang’s release.