Topics: Sentencing of Dr Yang Hengjun;
5 February 2024
Simon Birmingham: This is deeply distressing news today for Doctor Yang Hengjun, for his family and all of those who care about his rights, liberties and freedoms. I’m sure Australians will be aghast and appalled at the decision of Chinese authorities to level a sentence of this nature against an Australian citizen. Doctor Yand Hengjun has endured five years of unjust detention and uncertainty and now faces the prospect of indefinite detention. His family faced the prospect of never being reunited with their loved one. These are the terrible circumstances that Doctor Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen, faces. It must be the top priority for the Albanese Government in their engagement with Chinese officials, to continue to advocate on Doctor Yang Hengjun’s behalf. We must work to ensure he has access to the medical treatment and consular services that are his right. We must provide support through whatever legal avenues are undertaken by his team, and ultimately, the Australian government must argue for his release and return to Australia. The way in which Chinese authorities have treated Doctor Yang Hengjun, and the sentence that has been handed down, are a terrible reminder of the stark differences between our systems of government and systems of justice. Not only is this a painful blow to Doctor Yang, but in terms of people-to-people relations, it is a reminder of the risks that apply in doing business or engaging with China. It’s a reminder of why it is important for us always to defend the very important values and systems that we have the privilege of enjoying here in Australia.
Journalist: Senator, we know Doctor Yang is, according to his supporters, in a critical condition health wise. What do you want to see in terms of that health support, medical support for him while he’s detained?
Simon Birmingham: Doctor Yang is entitled to have appropriate medical treatment and support, along with Australian officials having regular consular access to him. These basic rights are the least Chinese authorities can and should deliver to ensure Doctor Yang gets the medical treatment and support he deserves, and the consular access he’s entitled to.
Journalist: Senator, would you have liked to have seen Australia take stronger diplomatic action today?
Simon Birmingham: It’s important that we take these matters step by step, in the best interests of Doctor Yang himself and all of his family. I look forward to receiving further briefings and updates from government, which will enable us to understand the steps that are being taken and what steps can be taken in his best interests.
Journalist: Is there anything in your experience, both in the ministry and in the shadow ministry, that would suggest that anything Australia does can change the outcome for Doctor Yang?
Simon Birmingham: It is important to appreciate that continued advocacy and ensuring an understanding by Chinese authorities of the way in which these matters are seen and felt in Australia can be important. Sometimes it is impossible to know precisely what actions or steps will make the greatest difference, but we cannot allow Doctor Yang’s case to slide from view. It must remain a top priority for the Albanese Government in all of its advocacy and all of its engagement with Chinese officials.
Journalist: Do you have any comment on the PM&C announcement today that they’ll appoint a former DFAT secretary to look into funding for national security research?
Simon Birmingham: The short answer to that is, no. I haven’t had a chance to have a look at the nature of that announcement.
Journalist: Senator, Shadow Cabinet meeting tonight as I gather to discuss stage three tax cuts. Do you have any thoughts on how the amended tax cuts could be further amended or they’re okay, or you just reject them completely?
Simon Birmingham: I have lots of thoughts which I can take to the Shadow Cabinet. And of course, I look forward to speaking with you after the Shadow Cabinet meeting about the outcomes.
Journalist: Just back to Doctor Yang. If something doesn’t change, is it fair that Australia would keep an ambassador there, or do you think we should take further actions in recalling them?
Simon Birmingham: As I said before, it’s important we take these matters step-by-step in the best interests of Doctor Yang, and I look forward to receiving briefings in terms of action that is being taken and to examining the options that can be considered over the days, weeks or months to come. We have to make sure there is the maximum appropriate pressure applied in of Doctor Yang, and this remains a top priority of all Australian officials in all of their engagements with China. We have sadly seen before, in relation to the HMAS Toowoomba incident, that the Prime Minister hasn’t seized the opportunity to advocate on behalf of those defence personnel as strongly and publicly as he should have. We want to make sure in this case and in all cases, that the interests of all Australians are at the top of the list and agenda when the Australian government and the Albanese government advocates or engages with China.
Journalist: When you say all Australian officials, there is multi-billion dollar tax trade deals going through at the moment and tariffs being removed, is this case something that could jeopardise that and would you be willing to jeopardise that given the charges and the circumstances of Doctor Yang?
Simon Birmingham: There are many issues that are on the list for engagement, always with China, and we have to make sure that we put Australia’s best interests forward all of the time. But let us understand the gravity of this situation. An Australian citizen who has been detained unjustly for more than five years, who was tried in secret without Australian officials having access to that trial, and who now faces a lifetime of detention and being withheld from access to his family and loved ones, that demands our constant attention and the constant advocacy of the Australian government.
Journalist: Is it still appropriate that the Chinese president come here this year?
Simon Birmingham: Again, as I said before, we will work through the briefings with government in terms of all options that that should be on the table and considered appropriately. Thank you.