Arrest of Australian citizen in China: Beijing-Canberra tension

By Jerome A. Cohen

Protests against the formal “arrest” of former diplomat Yang turned Australian citizen are beginning to mount. Australian officials have vigorously denied the espionage charges and condemned the PRC prosecution. The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Canberra of impermissible interference with PRC justice. It claims that Yang, who has been held incommunicado for more than 6 months, is being treated in accordance with Chinese law. This is true. The problem, of course, is that Chinese law violates basic precepts of international human rights law.

Although, in conformity with the Sino-Australian consular treaty, Yang’s jailers allow him monthly half-hour consular visits that are strictly limited in topics that can be discussed and monitored, they have yet to permit him access to a lawyer, even one chosen by the jailers. “Arrest” usually means the detained suspect is headed for indictment, trial, conviction and imprisonment, and the espionage charge guarantees a very long sentence, although the death penalty is always a threat.

A lawyer will eventually be provided to decorate the proceedings if the authorities refuse to allow the accused a counsel of his choice. In any event the defense lawyer’s role will be restricted and the Party-controlled court will reach the conclusions instructed by the Party leadership.

One practical issue of special interest to international lawyers is whether the PRC will allow Australian consuls to observe the trial to the extent it is deemed “secret”. In the Stern HU case some years ago the PRC violated even its own internal regulation in refusing Australia access to the secret parts of naturalized Australian Hu’s trial. The PRC should have based that determination on a valid interpretation of a disputed provision of the bilateral consular convention but instead simply sought to justify it with a reference to China’s supposedly untrammeled judicial sovereignty. Apparently that sovereignty is not even subject to international commitments made by the PRC in the exercise of its sovereignty!!

Chinese detention of Australian blogger Yang Hengjun

Jerome A. Cohen

The Chinese government has confirmed it has detained Yang Hengjun, a naturalized Australian who is a famous blogger in China, in “residential surveillance.”

The PRC’s actions in this case—including failure to inform the Australian embassy within three days of his detention and the reason for detention, and failure to provide consular access—are in plain violation of the required consular protections under the China-Australian consular agreement.

“Residential surveillance” sounds comforting but the version now so much in vogue in the PRC is not the original residential surveillance that might be considered similar to “house arrest” in other countries but “the designated location” version (RSDL) that Ai Weiwei’s illustration of his personal experience has done so much to expose. It is absurd to call it “house arrest” or claim it is similar to “home detention”, as Australia’s Defense Minister recently said mistakenly. Actually, Ai Weiwei’s theater and art show a tough, endless regimen that is nevertheless milder than that to which too many others have been subjected. RSDL frequently constitutes impermissible torture that violates both Chinese and international law.

If we go to China in the current circumstances, those of us critical of certain PRC actions now risk six months of RSDL for “investigation” of charges of possibly violating China’s “national security”. So far, as we have just seen in the PRC’s latest reaction to the Canadian-American Meng Wanzhou case, foreign critics of PRC “hostage justice” have only been attacked for “interfering with China’s sovereignty”. If we now dare to visit China, will we, like hapless blogger Yang, be detained for possibly “interfering with China’s national security”?