China travel warning: Australians told they may be at risk of arbitrary detention


Australia has updated its travel advice for China to warn that authorities have detained foreigners on alleged national security grounds and that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention.

Amid increasing tensions in the relationship between the two countries, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs revised the travel advice on Tuesday to include the phrase: “Authorities have detained foreigners because they’re ‘endangering national security’. Australians may also be at risk of arbitrary detention.”

The advice was updated about a week after Chinese officials and state media accused Australia of waging an “espionage offensive”. Last week the state-run Global Times cited an unnamed source from a Chinese law enforcement agency as saying authorities would “take more vigorous countermeasures to crack down on Australian espionage operations to safeguard China’s national security and interests”.

It is unclear whether the two developments are linked but Australia had already been warning against travel to China on the basis of broader coronavirus-related restrictions.

Apart from the warning about the risk of arbitrary detention, the update on Australia’s Smartraveller website on Tuesday noted that China would not allow most foreigners to enter the country at the current time. It said direct flights between China and Australia had significantly reduced.

“If despite our advice you travel to China, you’ll be subject to 14 days mandatory quarantine. Quarantine requirements may change at short notice. If you’re already in China, and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means.”

Last week Australia also updated its travel advice to Hong Kong to say the controversial new national security law that came into effect on 1 July “could be interpreted broadly”.

“You can break the law without intending to. The maximum penalty under this law in Hong Kong is life imprisonment,” the warning said, while also noting the increased possibility of demonstrations that may turn into violent clashes.

The Australian government is considering offering some form of safe haven to Hong Kong residents, with cabinet expected to discuss the issue on Wednesday. Any wide-ranging offer of support for Hongkongers wishing to flee the city is likely to anger China, and Australia’s relationship with the country has already been strained by trade and diplomatic tensions.

Last week a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, called on Australia to “look at the national security legislation in Hong Kong in a correct and objective light, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs with Hong Kong as a pretext, and refrain from going further down the wrong path”.

The Canadian government has also accused China of subjecting two of its citizens to “arbitrary detention”.

Last month China charged two Canadians – the former diplomat Michael Kovrig and the businessman Michael Spavor – with spying. The pair were arrested in late 2018, days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver on a US warrant.

While the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has called on Chinese authorities to “cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens”, China has rejected claims of political motivations.