The Australian government is asking Beijing for information about a former Chinese diplomat turned democracy activist allegedly detained by a group of ten security agents shortly after landing at an airport in China on Saturday.
Yang Hengjun, who was born in China but gained Australian citizenship, left New York a day before with his wife and a child, but reportedly failed to catch the second leg of the journey onward to Shanghai, according to a witness speaking to The Australian newspaper.
Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade confirmed on Wednesday it was “seeking information about an Australian citizen who has been reported missing in China”.
Friends have feared for Mr Yang’s safety as he has been conspicuously silent online; an active and influential commentator, he hasn’t posted on Twitter since January 17. Mr Yang worked for China’s foreign ministry before taking Australian citizenship and growing more outspoken on a spate of issues relating to the Chinese government. He was previously detained by Chinese authorities in 2011.
“Dr Yang is not only brilliant but extraordinarily popular among the Chinese speaking world,” tweeted John Garnaut, a China expert and friend of Mr Yang, describing him as a “courageous and committed democrat”.
“This will reverberate globally, if authorities do not quickly find an off-ramp,” Mr Garnaut wrote.
Details of Mr Yang’s case emerged just before Christopher Pyne, Australia’s defence minister, was due to arrive in Beijing for talks on Thursday.
It also comes at at time of heightened tension between China and Western countries, which have escalated after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top Chinese telecoms executive, in Vancouver on a US extradition request over an Iran sanctions violation.
Beijing has issued threats against both Canada and the US in response, even detaining at least 13 Canadians in a move that critics say is in retaliation over the Meng arrest. Australia has also expressed concern over China’s behaviour.
China denied having any knowledge of Mr Yang’s case on Wednesday.
"I am not aware of the situation about this Mr Yang and I can’t tell you whether it will be a topic of discussion between the two sides," said Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, when asked at a regular press briefing whether the issue would be discussed during Mr Pyne’s visit to China.
A consular agreement between Australia and China requires either government to inform the other within three calendar days if one of their citizens is detained, and diplomats are also entitled to communicate with that person.