research / ACRI Opinion

Detention of Australians in China

April 06 2021

By Elena Collinson

Note: This article appeared in The China Story, a blog by the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University, as part of a contribution to 'Perspectives: Detention of Australians in China', on April 6 2021.

Authoritarian governments have long resorted to national security as a legitimising gloss spread thick over restrictions of freedom of expression and association.

There is an emerging trend in which Chinese authorities take increasingly liberal recourse to Article 111 of the country’s criminal code (supplying state secrets) to target foreign citizens. The article seems to be intentionally ill-defined in order to allow for broad application, including to cases that may aid the achievement of political goals.

The Australian government is alive to the fact that it needs to allow for some flexibility in how it responds. It is critical to strike a balance between public statements and back-channelling, bearing in mind that public denunciation may at times hinder work towards the release of detainees despite acting as a salve for the domestic conscience.

But this is not to say that Australia must cleave to ‘quiet diplomacy’ at all costs. With Beijing reluctant to furnish Canberra with any information about charges pertaining to Australian citizens Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei, and with all proceedings conducted under a shroud and limited or no access to legal representation, it seems that in these matters, quiet diplomacy has run its course.

Working towards consolidating more international support, as well as furnishing the broader public with more information about the risks that travel to China presents may be useful. Australia recently delivered a joint statement with 34 countries against arbitrary detention at the UN Human Rights Council; joined 57 countries in endorsing Canada’s ‘Declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations’; and showed support to the Canadian detainees, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The Australian government could make more frequent its mentions of its detained citizens in major speeches by senior ministers. Canada, for example, has been particularly active in this regard. Surely when relations are where they are – rock bottom – there is little to lose if the Australian government were to insist on pressing the cases of its citizens in its public-facing rhetoric. More information could also be added to Australia’s current Smarttraveller China travel advisory highlighting more clearly the ramifications of China’s national security laws for prospective Australian travellers.

Elena Collinson is a senior researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.


Elena Collinson

Senior Project and Research Officer

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