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The easily forgotten victims of China and Australia’s bilateral tensions


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Nuria Yu


There is no question that China and Australia’s bilateral diplomatic relationship is at an all-time low; however, it is not just Australian farmers and winemakers who are suffering as a result of these tensions. Chinese-Australian citizens have been swept up in webs of inhuman detention by the Chinese government, and a lack of high-level political contact between the two governments renders their safe release a distant possibility.


Cheng Lei is a Chinese-Australian citizen who worked for eight years as a news anchor for China’s state-owned English-language channel CGTN. In August 2020, Chinese authorities detained her without formal charges or access to a lawyer. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, she is “suspected of engaging in activities that have endangered China’s national security”. However, those who know Ms Cheng have cast doubt over these claims, instead asserting that she is a careful professional who has cultivated a successful journalism career in China while abiding by the Chinese state’s boundaries of discourse.


Contrastingly, Dr Yang Hengjun is a Chinese-Australian citizen who frequently transgressed and pushed these boundaries as a prominent pro-democracy writer and activist. He was a former bureaucrat of China’s Foreign Ministry who left his role and began vocally critiquing China’s One-Party State on social media platforms Weibo and Twitter. In January 2019, he was arrested at Guangzhou Airport and accused of espionage - claims that have been adamantly denied by Canberra.


Reports of Dr Yang’s detention should spark concern: he has spent months in solitary confinement with limited hygiene facilities, and is subject to gruelling four-hour long interrogations on a weekly basis. Similarly, Ms Cheng has been detained in a cell without fresh air or natural light.


Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) warns citizens to obey local laws when they are abroad. In fact, in July 2020, the Department updated its travel advice for mainland China, cautioning citizens that they may be at risk of “arbitrary arrest”. In a world that is demarcated by state boundaries, it seems intuitive that travellers should follow the laws of the state in which they find themselves. Sovereignty is the guiding principle of international relations, and it grants states the authority to legislate and uphold their laws in their own territory. Nonetheless, this seemingly foundational concept becomes complicated when the application of these laws contravenes universally-accepted standards of human rights, such as the right to legal counsel and freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment.


Despite ongoing efforts by DFAT, both Ms Cheng and Dr Yang remain detained by China - their Australian citizenships have afforded them little protection. In an official statement, Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, revealed that Ms Cheng had received six visits from Australian embassy officials in her six months of detention. Therefore, these stories illuminate the geographical basis of sovereignty in which states have the right to control the fates of those who are on their territory, regardless of their nationality or citizenship. Although international laws and human rights norms can place some limitations on this right, international actors like China can still choose to ignore these in their treatment of Australian citizens. This ongoing detention is a stark reminder that human rights ideals are secondary to states’ interests in eliminating national security threats, whether claims to such threats are real or fabricated.


The detention of Australian citizens in China only adds fuel to the fire of escalating Sino-Australian relations. In 2020, China blocked imports of Australian products including barley, beef, and lobsters, and has also imposed a 200% tariff on Australian wine. Beijing has justified these trade sanctions as retaliation against Australia’s decision to lead an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. In particular, Chinese diplomat Wang Xining quoted Julius Caesar at an August National Press Club address, implying that Australia’s role in the inquiry was a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions. Sino-Australian tensions have been further exacerbated by the US-China rivalry that characterised the Trump Presidency: China’s state-run newspaper Global Times has criticised Australia as a ‘giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the US’.


Increasingly tense bilateral relations can’t be cited as the cause of the arrest and detention of Australian citizens in China. Nevertheless, some speculate that Ms Cheng’s arrest constitutes Chinese retaliation against raids by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) on Chinese state media journalists in June 2020. The escalating relations between Canberra and Beijing can potentially influence or impact how Ms Cheng and Dr Yang are treated. Similarly, their ongoing detention further complicates Australia’s path to normalising trade and diplomatic relations with China.


Both Ms Cheng and Dr Yang are Australian citizens of Chinese nationality, making them a part of the 5.6 per cent of Australians who identify as having Chinese ancestry. Their detention is worrying because 99 per cent of people accused of a crime are convicted in China. Moreover, those convicted of espionage could face the death penalty - a mode of punishment that has been abolished in Australia since 1985.


In another case in November 2020, British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was extradited to Australia after over 800 days of imprisonment in Iran - also under accusations of espionage. While the precise diplomatic workings that facilitated her release remain unclear, it is promising that the Australian government was able to negotiate in favour of her freedom.


Nevertheless, Canberra’s fraught relations with Beijing have resulted in limited contact between the two governments on a ministerial level. It is unclear if detained Chinese-Australians are likely to return home safely like Dr Moore-Gilbert. Unfortunately, they have been caught in the crossfire of interstate tensions, where their Chinese nationality and Australian citizenship render them especially vulnerable to arbitrary detention.



Nuria Khasim Yu is a first-year JD student at Melbourne Law School and an Uyghur Human Rights advocate. As a former Parliamentary Intern and International Relations Research Assistant, she is particularly passionate about the diplomatic mechanisms that can be used to address human rights abuses in Asian contexts.



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