Australia lobbies China on jailed citizens

Matt Coughlan
·2-min read

Australia is continuing to lobby for more information about two citizens locked up in China who consular officials haven't seen for at least a month.

Journalist Cheng Lei has been detained on suspicion of endangering national security, while writer Yang Hengjun has been charged with espionage.

Australian officials visited Ms Cheng in a Beijing detention centre twice last month, but haven't been able to speak to her since September 28.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson said the Australian ambassador made representations about the case in the past week.

"There would be very few interactions we would have with the Chinese in which her case would not be mentioned," she told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday.

Consular staff haven't seen Dr Yang since September 22, with the government yet to receive any further information about the charges.

Some espionage offences are punishable by death in China.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne raised his case with China two weeks ago and said it was a constant topic in any dialogue between the two countries.

Ms Adamson said Australia's relationship with China was under considerable strain, with differences in values and interests.

"They are dividing us at the moment rather than uniting us," she said.

Officials also expressed concern about a "notable" shift in China's language after Premier Li Keqiang left the word "peaceful" out of a statement about reunification with Taiwan.

"We therefore do take that seriously. We are, frankly, concerned by it," Ms Adamson said.

The DFAT secretary said diplomatic efforts were focused on curbing the risk of another Taiwan Strait crisis.

"It is certainly something I would be more concerned about this year than a year ago, or possibly at any time in the past three and a half decades I've worked on this subject," she said.

Senators quizzed DFAT over China's treatment of the Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

Committee chair Eric Abetz raised allegations from a Canadian parliamentary report that found Uighurs were subject to forced birth control and abortions.

The Liberal senator also noted issues around slave labour, harassment and surveillance.

DFAT's Elly Lawson said the government was aware of the Canadian findings.

"We do have very considerable concerns about the situation in Xinjiang," she said.

"We agree the conditions are extremely concerning."

She said Australia had made representations on many occasions about mass arbitrary detention, restrictions on freedom of religion, surveillance and allegations of forced labour.

Independent senator Rex Patrick asked DFAT's chief legal officer Simon Newnham if Australia would declare China's actions as genocide.

"In international law it has a specific meaning. We believe then that the crime of genocide is a matter appropriate for courts," Mr Newnham said.

"Regardless of the label applied here we continue to urge the respect for those fundamental freedoms."