Australia rejected a request for consular help as Chinese police circled in on an Australian permanent resident trying to leave the country.
Yuan Xiaoliang, the wife of an Australian writer who is detained in Beijing, attempted to fly out of China just days ago but was stopped by border security officials.
Her Australian lawyer, Rob Stary, said they had asked Australia for various forms of help amid concerns for her welfare, “to assist Mrs Yuan in departing from China – that is to provide her advice – to escort her if necessary to the airport, and secondly, to give her refuge in the Australian embassy,” Mr Stary told the ABC’s AM.
Mr Stary said officials declined to provide consular assistance.
“They say she is a Chinese national, and being an Australian permanent resident they say she doesn’t have an entitlement to exercise that right of consular assistance.”
The Consular Services Charter on the Smart Traveller website leaves the door open to officials helping permanent residents in certain circumstances.
“We only provide consular services to Australian permanent residents in the event of a crisis overseas. This may include government-assisted evacuations when provided to Australian citizens,” the website states.
Mr Stary said Ms Yuan’s case was unique and Australia needed to reconsider its options.
“When she went to Beijing Airport she was detained by internal security and then interrogated so in our eyes that constitutes an emergency.”
Why can’t Yuan Xiaoliang leave China?
Ms Yuan is married to Yang Hengjun, a former employee of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who became a prominent writer who had criticised the regime.
The couple travelled from New York to China in January. Shortly after, Mr Yang was detained by state security.
Since his arrest, he has been held in a secret Beijing location and has not had access to a lawyer.
Mr Yang is receiving consular assistance as he is an Australian citizen. Mr Stary said this was another reason why Australian officials should help Mrs Yuan.
“She is married to an Australian citizen and they are providing assistance to him. They’ve already intervened on behalf of the family. So we say that should itself be enough,” he said.
Ms Yuan was also subjected to interrogation after she tried to leave the country, when a group of Ministry of State Security officers questioned her for two hours.
‘Robust response’ needed from government
The Department of Foreign Affairs is yet to respond to the ABC’s questions about Ms Yuan’s case, but senior government minister Josh Frydenberg said efforts were being made to help the couple.
“We do everything humanly possible to protect our citizens at home and abroad,” he said.
Deputy Labor leader and Opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles backed the efforts of Australian officials.
“We do need to have faith in the Australian diplomats who are working on this,” he told AM.
“Having worked with them in the past, they are among the best diplomats in the world and I’m sure they’re doing everything they can to assist with Mr Yang’s release.”
Mr Frydenberg also said Foreign Minister Marise Payne had been working hard to ensure a positive outcome.
“When they [Australians] get into trouble abroad or get held, then we do everything we can to secure their release, just as we have done recently with Alek Sigley in North Korea, which was a wonderful result for him and his family,” he said.
It took just over a week for Mr Sigley to be released from North Korea. Ms Yuan and Mr Yang have been in China since January.
Mr Stary said the government needed to do more.
“We would like our government to intervene on behalf of our citizens, that is Mr Yang who is a citizen, and Mrs Yuan who is a permanent resident. They [the government] can do so and we ask them to do so robustly.”
The ABC understands DFAT has asked Chinese authorities to let Ms Yuan leave China and travel to Australia. That is yet to occur.