SYDNEY (Financial Times) -- An Australian writer has been formally arrested on charges of espionage by Chinese authorities in a move that threatens to sour Canberra's already strained diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Yang Hengjun has been held in China since January, when he disappeared in the southern city of Guangzhou, as his wife and child awaited visas to travel to Australia. On Tuesday Canberra confirmed that Mr Yang had been formally arrested by Chinese authorities and would continue to remain in criminal detention.
Marise Payne, Australia's foreign minister, said the government was "very concerned and disappointed" to learn of Mr Yang's formal arrest and criticised the harsh conditions he has been held in for seven months without charge.
"Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang's detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits," she said. "I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released."
Mr Yang's arrest in January followed the earlier detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, by Chinese authorities. Analysts say the detention of the two Canadians was in retaliation for the arrest last year of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Beijing has also criticised Canberra for its decision to bar Huawei from providing 5G mobile equipment in Australia on security grounds and for the introduction of tough new laws aimed at curbing foreign influence on its politics and society - a move interpreted as targeting China.
"This is clearly a political prosecution linked to Mr Wang's writing but the timing suggests it is also part of China's revenge against the west for Huawei," said Chongyi Feng, an Australian academic and friend of Mr Yang.
Ms Meng is fighting an attempt to extradite her to the US, where she faces charges of fraud linked to alleged violation of sanctions on Iran.
Mr Yang is a former Chinese official, novelist and blogger who obtained a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney and became an Australian citizen. Friends said he was in China with his wife and child and that Mr Yang had disappeared while waiting for an internal flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai.
Under Chinese law, the penalties for espionage include imprisonment or the death penalty.
In May, Chinese authorities formally arrested Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor, a former diplomat and businessman, and charged them with stealing state secrets for a foreign organisation. Last week, an employee of the UK consulate in Hong Kong was released by Chinese authorities after two weeks in detention following a trip to mainland China.