Australia under pressure to confront China over detained activists and foreigners

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Australia is coming under increasing pressure to address China’s detention of activists and foreign citizens, as it attempts to balance diplomatic and trade ties with the secretive state.

The incoming president of the Law Council of Australia has written to Marise Payne as one of his first acts, asking the foreign affairs minister to make “immediate diplomatic represenations to China regarding human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang” following his imprisonment in July 2015.

Wang was detained as part of a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, which began on 9 July 2015, and became known as the “709” arrests. While most of the 300 or so people taken into custody are thought to have been released, Wang remains behind bars, facing closed courts on charges of subversion of state power.

Arthur Moses said the Law Council of Australia believed Wang’s case to be “urgent and grave” and wrote to Payne, asking her to press the need for a “fair and transparent trial for Mr Wang”.

“In accordance with the United Nations’ basic principles on the role of the lawyers, it is vital for every nation to have an independent legal profession that can practise without fear of reprisal,” Moses said in a statement.

“This is critical to ensure that not only is justice done, justice is seen to be done.

“The Australian legal profession and the Australian community have a keen interest in promoting and defending the rule of law internationally and encouraging a Chinese legal system that is robust, fair and impartial.”

The Law Council’s intervention is the latest case of Australian bodies and professionals asking the government to speak up in regards to China’s alleged transgressions, after a group of foreign policy experts questioned Australia’s silence on the arrest of two Canadian citizens.

In a petition, 30 experts asked Payne to make Australia’s views on the detention of Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig in the week leading up to Christmas, clear.

The arrests of the Canadian citizens followed Canadian authorities detaining a Huawei executive at the request of the US.

“Since December 21, the European Union, United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France have each issued statements of concern regarding the apparently political motivation for the arrests of these Canadian citizens, which raise serious concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China. It is time for Australia to do the same,” the experts said in a statement.

“In view of the risks this raises to Australian research and business activities that form the bedrock of positive Australia-China relations, we respectfully ask you to join the above-mentioned governments in supporting the Canadian government’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees.”

Payne released a statement on Monday, but stopped short of calling for Spavor and Kovrig’s release.

“Australia and Canada share a strong commitment to the rule of law, essential to the functioning of our democratic systems. I have every confidence in the fairness and independence of Canada’s administration of justice,” she said.
“The Australian government is concerned about the recent detention of two Canadian citizens in China.

“We would be very concerned if these cases were related to legal proceedings currently under way in Canada involving a Chinese citizen, Ms Meng Wanzhou. The Australian government has conveyed this position to Chinese counterparts and we have been in regular contact with Canadian officials.”

Sino-Australian relations had been strained after the Turnbull government announced its anti-foreign interference legislation, which Beijing viewed as targeting China. Australia’s position on the South China Sea put further pressure on the relationship.

Ministers and journalists struggled to receive visas, while trade was tied up in bureaucratic red tape, as the government struggled to right the relationship.

Since the foreign interference legislation was passed, the government has largely stayed quiet on issues related to China, although following advice from security agencies, Huawei was blocked from building any part of Australia’s 5G network.

Australia has also begun to address China’s “soft diplomacy” in the Pacific, stepping in to majority build an internet cable for the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea after Huawei won the construction bid.

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