Coded Messages? Mystery Surrounds Australian Spy Novelist Missing in China

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Where in the world is Yang Hengjun?

The Chinese-Australian spy novelist and former Chinese Foreign Ministry official suspected of being detained by Chinese secret police resurfaced Wednesday to make brief calls to family, friends and the press.

“I’m O.K. right now,” Yang Hengjun said in a brief telephone interview with the Associated Press on Thursday. “Everything is O.K. I’m just recovering. This trouble is caused by me.” He did not elaborate what he was recovering from.

That night he also posted an explanation on Twitter. “Due to personal reasons, on the night of March 27, I temporarily lost contact with family and friends for more than 50 hours, creating a great disturbance,” he wrote in Chinese. “I deeply apologize.”

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When he first made contact with a select few family members and friends, Yang asked them to calm down, reportedly telling a student he was in a hospital, but not sick, and that he had been out of contact because his mobile phone was out of power.

Close confidant, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, said those who had spoken to Yang thought he sounded a bit odd on the telephone.

Feng has been unable to contact the writer himself, but he speculates Yang was detained because of his political writings, and is being told he will only be released if he agrees to say he has been “sick” for the past few days.

Yang disappeared Sunday, shortly after phoning a colleague from Guangzhou airport to say three men were following him. He later called his sister to say he was having a long talk with his “old friends,” which Feng said to the Sydney Morning Herald is code for the secret police.

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The Chinese government deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, and Jiang Yu a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she had never heard of Yang’s case.

The Australian government said Chinese authorities had not advised them of Dr. Yang’s detention, but members of the government have called for his release. One legislator, Michael Danby went so far as to demand that Yang be released before the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard visits Beijing next month.

“China must decide whether its interests are determined by its secret police or by its desire for good relations with friendly foreign countries like Australia,” he said in a statement.

So far, Yang has not been accused of any offense, but Amnesty International deputy director for the Asia Pacific, Catherine Baber said his disappearance is “extremely worrying,” as it comes “during one of the biggest round-ups of activists and critics for years.”

“He joins a long list of peaceful reformists who have gone missing or been arrested in China in the last month, ” she said.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports other Chinese-Australians have in the past faced accusations of endangering Chinese state security. Entrepreneur Matthew Ng, detained in November 2010 was charged with embezzlement; Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu was convicted last March of bribery and receiving commercial secrets, and James Sun, a student recruiter detained five years ago was convicted of spying for Taiwan.

It’s a tale good enough for one of his own novels.  (via WSJ and The Sydney Morning Herald)

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