A China-born Australian writer accused by Chinese authorities of espionage has been moved to a detention center in Beijing after six months of house arrest, paving the way for formal indictment, one of his lawyers said Friday.
Yang Hengjun’s family had earlier told the Australian embassy in Beijing that the writer had been taken to the facility, an Australian foreign ministry spokesman confirmed in a statement Thursday.
The 53-year-old writer routinely posted satirical commentaries critical of the Chinese government to his nearly 130,000 Twitter followers before his detention in January, during a visit to see family in China.
“Australia continues to have consular access and have again asked that (Yang) be granted immediate access to his lawyers,” the Australian foreign ministry spokesperson said.
Mo Shaoping, Yang’s Beijing-based lawyer, told CNN on Friday that his client’s detention status changed Wednesday but his case remained under investigation. Mo added that he was still not allowed to meet Yang due to the “national security” nature of his case.
Yang’s case has drawn widespread attention amid growing international concern over the detention of foreign citizens in China during geopolitical disputes, though China denies the arrests are politically motivated.
Yang’s Melbourne-based family lawyer, Robert Stary, said Wednesday that Beijing faced a Friday deadline to decide whether to charge or release the writer based on information provided by a source in China.
Chinese law enforcement authorities usually have up to six months to hold suspects, but legal experts say officials can extend detentions in cases of national security.
Stary said he is focusing his efforts on lobbying the Australian government to intervene on behalf of Yang’s wife – Yuan Xiaoliang – a Chinese citizen with Australian permanent residency. Yuan went into hiding after authorities stopped her at Beijing airport as she attempted to travel to Sydney in early July, Stary said.
When asked about Yang’s status Wednesday, a Chinese foreign ministry official said his case was still under investigation. “China’s national security agencies handle their cases in strict accordance with law and have fully guaranteed Yang’s legitimate rights,” said ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “I understand that Yang is in good health.”
Yang’s detention in January came amid a period of rocky relations between Beijing and Canberra. Both countries were increasingly clashing on issues ranging from China’s alleged attempts to influence Australian politics, to the Australian government’s decision to ban technology by Chinese company Huawei from the country’s 5G mobile networks and Beijing’s rising ambitions in the South Pacific.
Australia isn’t the only country to see its nationals arrested after falling foul of the Chinese government.
Two Canadians were detained on December 10, 2018, accused of gathering and stealing “sensitive information and other intelligence” since 2017. Ottawa continues to call for the immediate release of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, who were arrested in May.
The Canadians’ detention in December came just over a week after the Canadian government arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei. Meng was taken into custody on December 1, 2018, in Vancouver on behalf of the United States on charges of working to evade US sanctions against Iran.
Enraged by Meng’s detention, the Chinese government has repeatedly called the case “political” and accused Canada and the US of “abusing their bilateral extradition treaty.” Meng remains under house arrest in Vancouver while fighting extradition to the US in a Canadian court.
The exit ban faced by Yang’s wife mirrors the plight of two young American siblings who have been prevented from leaving China for over a year following a family visit.
Cynthia Liu, 28, and Victor Liu, 19 – both born in the US – are reportedly being used to pressure their high-profile fugitive father into returning to China, where he is wanted for financial crimes.
In a video obtained by CNN in May, an emotional Cynthia Liu said she and her brother “wake up every morning terrified,” adding that they had “never felt more exhausted, sad and hopeless.”
Although Beijing denies any link between its detention of foreign nationals and bilateral disputes, critics say the cases have had a “chilling effect” on how foreigners view and deal with China.
“You start to hear people say, If my government has frictions with China, I’d better not be in China,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “Other people feel, I’d better stay quiet and not say anything critical of the Chinese government in case something happens to me.”
Wang said that Chinese officials under President Xi Jinping have become “increasingly confident and aggressive” on the global stage when defending Beijing’s human rights records, but urged the international community, especially Western governments, to keep pressing China on the issue.
Expressing disappointment in US President Donald Trump for “using human rights as a bargaining chip” in trade negotiations with China, Wang said such moves send a wrong signal and don’t help foreign citizens arbitrarily detained in China.
“The Chinese government is getting the message (from the US) – ‘You don’t really care about human rights’ – which should be independent of other political and economic talks,” she said.
CNN’s Angus Watson and Serenitie Wang contributed to this article.