It has been almost 8 months since Yang Hengjun (楊恒均) was detained. Last month, after months of unlawful detainment in China, he was finally charged with espionage.
Yang was born in Hubei in 1965. He went on to graduate from Fudan University. After graduating, he went on to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. Though, even at this early stage, Yang’s own record starts to clash with that maintained by the CCP. The Foreign Ministry in China disputes Yang’s claim and says that he never worked for them.
Yang later worked in Hong Kong, from 1995 to 1997, as a manager within a Chinese company. After this he moved to the United States and began work as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC based think tank that focuses on growing growing ties between Europe and North America.
It seems that sometime in the early 2000s, Yang became an Australian citizen. Around this time is when he began to grow his following and influence. He gained most of his rise to prominence with his writing career. He wrote a number of books and blogs. The subject of most of his books revolve around espionage. Some even allege that his initial novel, Fatal Weakness, was based on personal experience. He has also curated quite a large following on Twitter, currently boasting more than 127 thousand followers. His tweets generally seem benign and point in the direction of soft reform in China, and I would consider them generally arguing about minutia, though to be fair I didn’t read them all because: 1. there are a lot of them, a little under 10k 2. reading simplified Mandarin for too long gives me a headache, it is objectively hideous. All of his critiques of the CCP, mild as many of them were, got him the nickname of “Democracy Peddler”, though seems he was more of a ‘around the edges’ reformer than a revolutionary, though to be fair it is hard to get a read on his more long-form ideas as his website seems to be offline. It is unclear what the reason is for that, though one could suppose it has something to do with his detention.
In any case it seems that his critiques, whether on Twitter or elsewhere, have landed him in hot water before. Yang was detained for the first time in 2011, though this first detention was much shorter in length. He was released relatively quickly and claimed the whole ordeal was simply a “misunderstanding.”
After Yang was released he gave his close friend Feng Chongyi, an academic from Sydney, a letter to release if he were once again detained. Feng released the letter the same month his friend was detained a second time.
The letter encourages like-minded people to keep fighting for democratization in China if, “it doesn’t put yourself or your family at risk, to use all your means to push China’s democratic development to happen sooner.” He also implores readers to remember my articles and let your children read them.”
After a long stent in Australia, Yang had been spending some time in America. He was spending his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. It seems that recently, at least according to those close to him in New York, Yang has been growing more distant from the political scene. In a series of interviews with Reuters, many friends and acquaintances discuss how Yang had been keeping to himself. Some are saying that he was spending most of his energy on operating a ‘daigou’ (代購) business. A ‘daigou’ operation is one where someone abroad, often overseas Chinese, acquires and transports desired goods across the border into China. These enterprises take many forms, some legal, some not, some selling high end fashion, some selling baby formula. While I have not seen any allegations, let alone evidence, that Yang’s operation was the least bit illicit, it does seem that he was redirecting much of his energy away from politics. Whatever the case, On January 18, 2019, however involved Yang was in political discourse didn’t matter.
Yang and his family returned to China to renew Yang’s wife and daughter’s visas, which were set to expire. The family landed first in Guangzhou, they were preparing to board a plane to Shanghai, unfortunately Yang would never make it onboard where his wife and child waited for him. He was pulled aside and detained.
Yang would be moved to a secret holding facility and not heard from after that. Even his lawyer, an Australia-based attorney, would be unable to meet with his client, a common tactic for the CCP. This also brings into question what methods his captors are using to extract a ‘confession’ or simply punish him for perceived wrong doings. It is also worth mentioning that Yang’s lawyer, Robert Stary, does not know his client’s whereabouts. He also mentioned that his client was being kept in a room that was constantly guarded and illuminated, this practice is in direct opposition to UN rules for detaining prisoners. While Yang is the more high profile of his family members, he is not the only one who is stuck in China for the foreseeable future.
Yang’s wife is a complicated figure in more than one way. First off, we have her name, or names. She goes by Yuan Xiaoliang and also Yuan Ruijuan, depending on which site you look at you will see a different name. I have yet to find an adequate explanation for why this is, though to be fair it wasn’t my top priority. Her persona is also very hard to decipher. She seems to wholeheartedly support her husband, however she also seems to hold views that fly in the face of her husband’s pro-democracy stance. Yuan, just like her husband, has a prominent online presence, though unlike her husband, her notoriety is mainly based on her virulent opposition to democracy.
She has previously said that China is a nation “raped” by democracy. She also referred to supporters of Apple in China as American “slaves”. She has also described herself as the “chairwoman” of the 50 Cent Party (五毛黨), commonly called ‘wumao’ online. If you have even the slightest familiarity with Chinese trolls online or have seen a comment section on a tweet or YouTube video that even casually mentions China, you have almost certainly encountered wumao. The 50 Cent Party is essentially a loose cadre of online Chinese. Some are almost certainly paid, but many more simply seem to feel they are doing their patriotic duty to defend China’s honor.
She has seemed to have conflicting views on America, depending on the situation. Though to be fair that is how it seems to be with many in the Chinese Communist Party as well, America and other democratic nations are the devil and their lands dangerous hellscapes, however when it comes to education that is the first place party officials send their children. This is true from the bottom to the top, see Chairman Xi’s daughter Xi Mingze who studied in the US. Yuan described how great the American education system was in a post on Weibo, where, at least as of a year ago, she had over 400 thousand followers. She talked about how great it was that no matter your immigration status, if you could prove where you lived, US public schools must care for your childen and their education, remarking “As for private schools, it’s even easier, all’s fine as long as you have money.” She deleted her post later, likely due to blowback received from throwing the Chinese education system under the bus.
Yuan’s flip-flop is not too surprising, as mentioned with the education issue, many card-carrying party members in China routinely criticize democratic nations then turn around and buy property outside of China in an attempt to emigrate. This, perhaps, was the case with Yuan.
I’ve been on Weibo for eight years. And many of my followers sent me private messages saying I’ve changed. Indeed I did. I praised China more in the past, now I’ve started to criticize this country more. Online public opinion has also changed. More people criticized the country in the past, and now there are more voices praising it. I am not the kind of person who likes to follow mainstream ideologies.
This all goes to show that even the most mild criticism seems to be grounds for detention, Yuan is also unable to leave China, though she did try. Even if she had never espoused her mildest of critiques of the regime it is likely that she would be in the same boat simply for being married to a man who sometimes writes about how he wishes the people of China had even the smallest say in their government, or that perchance the CCP should violate a few less human rights.
The purpose of all these details is not to add insult to injury. I feel deeply for these two and all those detained by the CCP, and often subjected to much worse. While it is unclear exactly why their family has been detained. It could be because of their mild disaprovals of some aspects of the CCP, it could be as a way to get back at Australia for recent disagreements. This would not be unheard of, one simply needs to look at the story of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig as retaliation for Canada arresting Meng Wanzhou.
Regardless of why these two have been detained it seems that none of the possible reasons would stand up in a just court. However, it goes further, being that Yang was held for over half a year before being charged, in conditions that violate UN regulations. Yuan has not even been charged with a crime, but is not allowed to leave the country, even though she has residency in Australia. This is a clear miscarriage of justice. Australia has done some work to pressure Beijing for more information and reasonable treatment of the family, though it has stopped at essentially pleading and minor criticisms. In other words, it is toothless and falls embarrassingly short.
As with other detained in China, the international community needs to do so much more. They have routinely fallen short and it only serves to embolden the rogue immoral Chinese regime. Words are not enough, they haven’t been more decades. All who pride themselves as lovers of freedom, democracy, and human rights need to take actions, boycotts, divestments, sanctions, decoupling, and the list goes on. If they don’t, their cries for justice ring hollow and history will remember them as nations and organizations that held these values hollowly, so long as they needn’t sacrifice anything.