Marking the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances on Aug. 30, several human rights groups called on China to stop using the practice of disappearances to silence human rights defenders, dissidents and other members of civil society.
They are urging the government in Beijing to immediately release those being held, including Yang Hengjun — an Australian writer of Chinese origin, whom Beijing has officially charged with espionage after a months-long detention. The former government official was detained in January as he prepared to head to Shanghai after traveling to Guangzhou from New York with family. He has been held without access to family or lawyers since then. Yang, who was later moved to Beijing, has been a vocal critic of Chinese authorities.
Rights groups, including the International Service for Human Rights and Safeguard Defenders, called China’s arrest of foreign citizens, including Yang and two Canadians, part of its aggressive "hostage diplomacy," according to a joint statement.
Some observers believe that Yang’s incarceration may be linked to Australia’s decision to ban the purchase of equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei over security concerns. Others, however, argued that Yang may be a target under China’s campaigns to find double agents in politics or elsewhere.
Yang was formerly a diplomat at China’s foreign affairs ministry before working in the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to the United States and then Australia. Yang holds Australian citizenship.
Once a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, the 54-year-old writer, known as the “democracy peddler,” has been a popular political commentator. He has called for democratic reforms in China over the past decade.
He is also famous for his spy thriller Fatal Weakness, which is one of three books in a series.
During a recent interview with CNN, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison denounced the allegations against Yang as “absolutely untrue” and pledged to “stand up" for him.
In response, China on Thursday criticized Morrison for what it called his “wanton” comments.
“China is a country with the rule of law. China's judiciary independently processes cases according to the law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press briefing.
“I advise the Australian side to immediately stop making comments which are not backed up by evidence and are irresponsible and stop the hype and the pressure,” he added.
Under Chinese laws, the range of espionage offenses carries penalties from three years in prison to the death sentence.
Non-profit group PEN America noted that China’s legal action against Yang “is a chilling illustration of the abusive lengths the [Chinese] government will go to silence its critics.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Yang’s case is indicative of China’s lack of press freedom.
“By charging a foreign journalist for espionage, the Chinese regime’s record of press freedom has taken another turn for the worse,” said Cedric Alviani, head of the media freedom group’s East Asia Bureau, in a press statement.
RSF called on the international community “to ramp up the pressure on Beijing so that they would immediately release Yang and all other  detained journalists and bloggers.”
Although circumstances involving Yang’s arrest remain unclear, Xia Ming, professor of political science and global affairs at The City University of New York, said that infighting among factions of China’s diplomatic and secret services is clearly at play and that Yang is possibly a scapegoat of the defeated factions.
In a broader sense, Yang may also be a target of China’s drive in recent years to remove politicians who will not take a position on issues, say analysts.
“After Xi Jinping proposed to clean up double-faced people, I’m afraid people [like Yang] who have shuttled between China and Western countries are put at great risk,” Xia said.
Sharing a similar view, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that the Communist Party now sees Yang, who came out of China’s diplomatic and intelligence systems, but trumpeted democratic values overseas, as a traitor.
Through Yang’s case, China further aims to send a message abroad, he said.
“The Chinese government wants to teach a lesson to the Australian government, remind them that they shouldn’t push too hard against activities in Australia, against what China is doing to influence Australian politics and to promote its interests in Australia,” Cabestan said.
Yang’s detention comes amid escalating tensions between Beijing and Canberra.
Despite their strong trade bonds, the two countries are clashing on issues, which include China’s rising ambitions in the South Pacific, its alleged attempts to influence Australia’s domestic politics and Canberra’s decision to ban Huawei’s technology from its 5G networks.