CANBERRA/SYDNEY – A security adviser to an Australian prime minister said he warned a Chinese-Australian writer not to travel to China before the blogger and critic of China’s Communist Party was detained on arrival at a Chinese airport in January.
John Garnaut was commissioned in 2016 by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to write a classified report on Chinese influence on Australian politics, leading to sweeping laws in 2018 banning covert foreign political interference and a diplomatic rift between Australia and China, its biggest trading partner.
Garnaut told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview broadcast on Monday that he advised spy novelist and friend Yang Hengjun not to travel to China after Yang revealed he had been questioned by a Chinese government official in Sydney in 2018 about Garnaut’s investigation.
“He was asked about me, what was the nature of our relationship, what was I doing. What was I working on,” Garnaut said.
Yang, a 53-year-old visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York and a former Chinese diplomat, did not take Garnaut’s advice and flew to China with his wife, Xiaoliang Yuan, and his 14-year-old stepdaughter.
Yuan said she had not seen her husband since they were separated by Chinese officials when they landed at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in January that Yang was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities endangering China’s national security.” He is being held in Beijing, where the Australian Embassy has been allowed consular access to him. ABC reported that Yang had yet to be formally charged.
The Australian government has urged China to treat Yang transparently and fairly.
Yuan is living in Shanghai. She said she is not allowed to leave China and her husband has not seen a lawyer.
“I have absolutely no idea whether he is well or even if he is alive or not,” she said through an interpreter.
“It gets harder as time passes, mainly because I can’t see him. I would have felt better if the lawyers could see him and verify that he is all right,” she added.
A friend of Yang, University of Technology Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, was detained for two weeks in 2017 while visiting China to research human rights lawyers.
Feng told ABC that he had been questioned for an entire day in detention about Garnaut’s investigation. Feng said his interrogators had known Garnaut was working for the prime minister.
“They knew a lot about him. During the interrogation, they did not hide that they were angry with him,” Feng said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he had not seen the ABC report. But Lu said the Chinese government had always opposed any interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
“As for activities carried out by Chinese embassies and consulates in other countries, these activities aim at promoting mutual understanding between China and the regions or countries where the diplomatic mission are based, and enhancing mutual understanding and friendship among the people, including serving as the bridge of cooperation between the business community of each other,” Lu said.
“I did not see any difference between the activities carried out by Chinese embassies and consulates in other countries and those conducted by foreign diplomatic missions in China,” he added.
Elsewhere, Australia’s hard-line immigration minister has been swept up in the deepening saga over alleged Chinese meddling in the nation’s domestic politics Tuesday, delivering another blow to a government facing defeat in next month’s election.
An investigation by national broadcaster ABC revealed that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton met privately in 2016 with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo to discuss obtaining Australian citizenship.
Huang has been at the center of a series of scandals including accusations he bought influence in Canberra with millions in donations to major political parties. He has long denied any wrongdoing.
ABC alleged Huang paid a lobbyist thousands of dollars for private access to Dutton, throwing Australia’s governing coalition into the foreign interference saga even as it trails in polls ahead of an expected May 18 election.
Huang was eventually denied citizenship on the advice of Australian spy agencies and barred last month from the country on suspicions he is part of a Communist Party influence campaign.
Dutton on Tuesday dismissed allegations of interference as “nonsense.”
“I have never received a dollar from this individual. I had one meeting with him over lunch. I have never seen him since,” he told reporters.
Former opposition Labor Party Sen. Sam Dastyari, who was forced to quit politics because of his ties to Huang, told the ABC that Dutton in 2015 fast-tracked a request for the billionaire’s family to hold a citizenship ceremony.
Dastyari said it “blew him away” when Dutton took a few weeks to approve a fast-track request that would typically take months to rubber stamp.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his government Tuesday, labelling Dastyari a “disgrace” for “betraying” his country.
But former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who last year introduced sweeping reforms to Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws, said the ABC report was “very concerning.”
Turnbull, who was ousted in a party coup late last year by a hard-right faction led by Dutton, likened the latest revelations to the Dastyari case.
“Peter Dutton has a lot to explain about this,” he told reporters Tuesday.
“He is supposed to be the minister responsible for the domestic security of Australia,” said Turnbull, calling on Morrison to do more.
Canberra banned foreign donations as part of its reforms, with China called out as its primary concern.
Beijing has dismissed the claims of meddling as hysteria and paranoia.