China's Spy Agency Strikes Again as Australian Writer Held

(Bloomberg) -- China’s spy agency has detained an Australian writer over alleged national security threats -- the third foreigner known to have been detained on similar grounds in the past two months.

Yang Hengjun -- a Chinese native who’s now an Australian citizen -- was being investigated for “criminal activities endangering national security,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday in Beijing. She said Yang was being held under “compulsory measures” by the Ministry of State Security, without elaborating on the nature of the allegations.

Mo Shaoping, a China-based lawyer who said he has been asked by Yang’s family to take the case, said the writer was suspected of espionage.

China's Spy Agency Strikes Again as Australian Writer Held

“We are ensuring his legitimate rights and interests,” Hua told a regular news briefing. “According to what I know, we notified the Australian embassy after taking these compulsory measures.”

Yang’s detention follows the seizure of two Canadians by China’s spy agency last month, although there was so far no indication the cases were related. Yang was detained Saturday after arriving to the southern city of Guangzhou on a flight from the U.S., a friend told Bloomberg News on Wednesday.

Yang previously was a Chinese foreign affairs official in Beijing, before becoming an Australian citizen and a novelist, the Australian newspaper said Wednesday.

Mo, who previously represented late Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, said he hasn’t had a chance to meet his client. Yang’s being held under “residential surveillance,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, senior Australian officials criticized China for taking too long to notify its government about the detention. Officials said they were informed of Yang’s arrest four days later, rather the three days required by the country’s consular agreement.

“The notification has been delivered now as required under the consular agreement, but perhaps not in the most timely way,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne told a news conference in Canberra. “I don’t suggest that the agreement has been ignored. The notification was delayed, but I will be seeking explanations of that process.”

Consular Access

Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne echoed her comments while on a visit to Beijing, calling the timing “disappointing.” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was seeking immediate consular access to Yang and further clarification on why he had been detained.

Hua, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said she didn’t have enough information to respond to the criticism. “We believe the Chinese side already carried out its duties in terms of consular affairs,” she said.

China's Spy Agency Strikes Again as Australian Writer Held

Payne said there was no evidence that Yang’s case was connected to the Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies Co.’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who’s facing extradition to the U.S. China subsequently detained the two Canadians -- Michael Kovrig, an International Crisis Group analyst, and Michael Spavor, who ran tours into North Korea -- and sentenced a third to death on a drug charge, escalating a diplomatic feud between the two countries.

Global Spotlight

The Ministry of State Security was also involved in the Canadians’ detentions, thrusting the agency into the global spotlight. In recent years it’s been involved in several high-profile detentions of foreigners and has put dissidents under house arrest without criminal charges.

Yang was scheduled to arrive in Guangzhou from New York at 5 a.m. on Saturday, his friend Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney, told Bloomberg News. Yang was then due to catch a connecting flight to Shanghai with his wife and daughter, but he never made it through security, Feng said.

China issued a similar complaint to Australia’s following Meng’s arrest, accusing Canada of violating its consular agreement by failing to speedily inform Beijing of her detention. Canada said it notified Chinese envoys on the day of the arrest.

“If a Chinese citizen is arrested by the Canadian government, the Canadian government should immediately notify the Chinese embassy,” Lu Kang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in December. “But the Canadian government didn’t do that.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.