Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed he will press the Chinese government to resolve the case of detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun during a three-day official visit.
The trip also comes on the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s landmark trip in 1973 – the first by an Australian prime minister to the People’s Republic of China.
Mr Albanese will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday in what the government hopes will stabilise relations between the two countries.
While the visit will highlight trade, the prime minister will also press the case for the release of Dr Yang, who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2019 and faces espionage charges, the basis of which is not clear.
Australian academic Yang Hengjun (pictured with his wife) remains detained in a Chinese prison on espionage charges
‘I will be saying that Dr Yang’s case needs to be resolved and I will be speaking about his human rights, the nature of the detention and the failure to have transparent processes,’ Mr Albanese said in Darwin.
While the government has raised the issue of Dr Yang’s detention previously, there is renewed hope following the recent release of Chinese-born Australian television journalist Cheng Lei after three years in detention, also on espionage-related charges.
It comes after Dr Yang’s family wrote a heartfelt letter to the prime minister ahead of his meeting with Chinese President.
Dr Yang’s sons urged the PM to ‘act now’ and ‘achieve a second miracle by saving our father, who has now spent four years and nine months in detention’.
‘We request that you do all in your power to save our father’s life and return him immediately to family and freedom in Australia,’ they wrote.
‘We ask that you make clear that it is not possible to stabilise the bilateral relationship with a government that is holding an Australian citizen just a few kilometres south of where you will be hosted.’
Mr Yang has been imprisoned on espionage charges since he was arrested in January 2019 at Guangzhou Airport, on his way to visit his sick brother.
Dr Yang faced a closed-door trial in Beijing in May 2021 and has been languishing in a cell since. No verdict has been publicly disclosed.
Anthony Albanese (left) will call for the imprisonment of Dr Yang to be resolved when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) on Monday. Pictured are the two leaders at a 2022 meeting
Mr Albanese will also be focused on reinvigorating the bilateral China-Australia free trade agreement, resolving China trade bans on certain Australian exports, as well as future dispute resolution.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, particularly for iron ore, natural gas and critical minerals such as lithium.
‘The fact that it is the first visit in seven years to our major trading partner is a very positive step, and I look forward to constructive discussions and dialogue with the president and the premier during my visit to Shanghai and Beijing,’ Mr Albanese said.
At the height of a diplomatic spat with China in 2020, Beijing imposed trade bans worth $20 billion on Australian products.
The Labor government has managed to whittle those tariffs down to about $2 billion since winning government in 2022.
China lifted tariffs on barley in August following a review and is undertaking a five-month review of its ban on Australian wine worth $1.2 billion.
The remaining trade issues are bans on lobster and beef exports, and hopes are high that at least one of these issues will be resolved.
Jailed Aussie academic Yang Hengjun (pictured) told the PM in a recent letter that he’s almost destroyed’. ‘I just hope I will be able to get out alive.’
However, Mr Albanese has also signalled Australia won’t back China’s push to join a trans-Pacific free trade agreement.
Mr Xi is expected to lobby the prime minister for Australia’s support for his country’s bid to join the 12-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
China regards the relationship with Canberra as being at the forefront of its relations with developed countries.
But it also believes its application to join the trans-Pacific trade bloc is crucial to upgrading economic co-operation between the two nations.
On Sunday, Mr Albanese will attend the opening of the China International Import Expo trade fair in Shanghai.
More than 200 Australian companies will be represented at the event, with Mr Albanese expected to visit the stalls of Australian businesses in the agriculture sector.
Mr Albanese, pictured in Darwin on Saturday is on his way to Beijing to meet with the Chinese President
Trade Minister Don Farrell will accompany the prime minister at the event, and will likely meet with his Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao.
A delegation of Business Council of Australia members is also travelling to Shanghai this weekend with Mr Albanese in a bid to boost economic opportunities.
Mr Albanese’s visit will include a grand ceremonial welcome at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday, when he will meet Mr Xi.
The pair last met face-to-face a year ago at a G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
The following day, he will return to the Great Hall to meet Premier Li Qiang before leaving for home.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong is also accompanying Mr Albanese to China.