Foreign Minister Penny Wong must be strong in Yang Hengjun death sentence case


Hostage diplomacy is an apt name for the exquisite predicament in which Australia finds itself. An Australian citizen, Yang Hengjun, is held arbitrarily and then, in a shocking decision, sentenced to death. But with the diabolical twist that the sentence is suspended for two years dependent on good behaviour.

Whose good behaviour? Not Yang’s but ours – Australia’s. With Yang as a hostage, Australia is being blackmailed into submission and silence.

China’s courts have given a death sentence to Australian Yang Hengjun, putting Foreign Minister Penny Wong in an invidious position.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Beijing is masterful at planting self-doubt in the minds of rivals. If we speak out against Chinese bullying of neighbours in the South China Sea, will Yang be executed? If we name China as a perpetrator of cyberattacks, will Yang be executed?

If you are worried about what another party might do, they are in control. So, we need to make Beijing worry more about what we might do.

As a smaller nation that abides by rules and norms, the way to do that lies in collective action. Rather than try to walk this treacherous tightrope alone, Australia needs to work with liberal democracies to establish a coalition of nations that can respond to hostage diplomacy and impose a cost – from economic to reputational – on nations that abuse the rule of law this way.

And we are not starting from scratch. In 2021, the democratic world signed the Canada-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention. Canada was driven by the experience of having two of its citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained arbitrarily because Ottawa agreed to consider an extradition request by the United States for Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer to the telco giant Huawei, whom US authorities accused of fraud.

Australian Yang Hengjun, pictured with his wife, has been sentenced to death in China.

Australian Yang Hengjun, pictured with his wife, has been sentenced to death in China.

Canada’s stoutness demonstrated that when a country stands up to bullying, it is standing up not just for itself but for everyone who believes in rules and norms.

The 2021 declaration was a good start, but it needs enforcement mechanisms to stop it being toothless. Australia should start with the Five Eyes group – our partnership with Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – and the G7 nations, which adds France, Germany, Italy and Japan. It should also encourage participation from other countries that have citizens arbitrarily detained, such as Sweden with Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai held since 2015. Countries that have experienced Moscow’s and Beijing’s bullying, like Lithuania and other European Union members, would also be powerful partners.



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