China Arrests Reform Advocate Yang Hengjun; Writer Had Just Flown In From New York

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China has arrested Yang Hengjun, an author and former Chinese diplomat who is now an Australian citizen. He’s seen here in a photo from 2014, taken during a visit to Tibet. Social Media/Reuters hide caption

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Social Media/Reuters

China has arrested Yang Hengjun, an author and former Chinese diplomat who is now an Australian citizen. He’s seen here in a photo from 2014, taken during a visit to Tibet.

Social Media/Reuters

Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun is being detained by Chinese authorities, according to Australia’s Embassy in Beijing. Yang was reportedly taken into custody immediately after flying from New York to China on Saturday. Since then, the democracy advocate’s normally active Twitter feed has fallen silent.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that China confirmed Yang’s detention, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on its website. It added that it is “seeking to clarify the nature of this detention and to obtain consular access to him, in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement.”

Yang’s friends in Australia say they’re worried for the safety of the man whose push for reforms earned him the nickname of “the democracy peddler.” Yang, 53, went from a 20-year career in the Chinese Foreign Ministry to writing about politics online, where he has gained a large following.

“A close friend of Yang’s has told reporters that Yang and his wife were interrogated by authorities for over 12 hours after arriving at the airport in the southern city of Guangzhou,” NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports from Shanghai. “Yang’s wife was allowed to leave for Shanghai, but authorities reportedly held on to him.”

Feng Chongyi, a friend of Yang’s who is a prominent professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, says he tried to warn Yang against returning to China.

“I advised him not to go there,” Feng tells Australia’s ABC radio. “The risk is too high.”

But in response, Feng recalled, Yang said that his profile is much lower than it used to be, because Chinese censors have cramped his ability to reach a large audience.

In the U.S., Yang has been working as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He has been a citizen of Australia since 2002, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

It’s not the first time Yang has disappeared while in China. In 2011, he was widely believed to have been detained as part of the Chinese crackdown on dissidents and public demonstrations. In that case, he resurfaced after several days.

When a reporter asked Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying on Tuesday about Yang’s current status in China, she replied that she had no knowledge of him. Her response echoed one from 2011, when a ministry representative who was asked about Yang also said she had never heard of him.

The writer’s apparent detention comes as China is locked in a diplomatic standoff with the U.S. and Canada over the arrest last month of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, whom the U.S. suspects of committing bank fraud. Meng is currently in Vancouver, at risk of being extradited to the U.S.

Since Meng’s arrest, China has detained two Canadian citizens, in addition to sentencing a Canadian man to death who was previously found guilty of drug smuggling. In light of those developments, U.S. and Canadian business executives became wary of traveling in China.

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