***article reprinted from www.smh.com.au***
My friend, the writer who 'disappeared'
John GarnautMarch 29, 2011
Activist . . . Yang Hengjun claimed he was being followed before he disappeared. Photo: Tanya Lake
You might think it gets easier to stomach news of a good friend or terrific individual ''disappearing'' in China, given the rate at which it has been happening. But Yang Hengjun vanishing from Guangzhou's Baiyun Airport hits deeper into the abdomen and rises further up the throat, I think, because it comes with an added feeling that the ground for everyone in China is shifting fast beneath our feet.
Nobody has heard from ''Henry'' Yang since Sunday when the Sydney writer phoned a colleague to say he was being followed by three men. Australian diplomats, already struggling to cope with the growing list of detained ethnic Chinese Australians, say they are urgently trying to find him. Yesterday Yang's legions of online followers voiced hope that this increasingly brutal system would not be so irrational as to ''disappear'' him, rather than simply warn him that the censor's red line was closing in.
Bizarrely, Yang's writings remained freely available on the Chinese internet yesterday. But if the system has swallowed this hugely popular commentator - as it has done to dozens of lower-profile Chinese lawyers and activists in recent weeks - are there no longer any limits?
I first caught up with Yang's online political commentaries during his one-man campaign to persuade ethnic Chinese patriots to abort an embassy-supported march on Canberra's Parliament House to ''defend the sacred Olympic torch''.
''I'm sending a friendly message to the Chinese government that this is very serious,'' Yang Hengjun said from his Hornsby home. ''And I'm telling Chinese students here that they are dumb: if you really want to show your patriotism, then go to Tiananmen Square.''
Yang foresaw the Chinese ethnic firestorm and international backlash well before officials in either country.
''The best way of being patriotic is seeking liberty, rule of law and democracy,'' he said in December. He watched how civil society and democracy worked in the West and wrote about how it could in China.
Yang is a former Chinese diplomat and his classmates from Fudan University's department of international relations are now spread through the bureaucracy and business. His most influential teacher was Wang Huning, who now accompanies President Hu Jintao on every overseas trip. These connections provided fodder for his fiction and informed his views. And they partly explain how he has been allowed to survive long enough to attract the phenomenal following he has on the Chinese-language internet.
Yang also stood at the centre of a vast network of journalists, intellectuals and activists and retained his optimism that China would continue to evolve away from its former totalitarian path. He believed there really was no other option.
''I believe China has two choices now: political reform and democracy or cultural revolution,'' he said in December. ''The first is a path of life. The latter may be a path of life for some but for the nation it is a road to death.''
In recent days Yang has critiqued a new surveillance system at Peking University aimed at identifying potentially ''radical'' students. He lamented the ''burden'' carried by China's intellectuals after the dissident Liu Xianbin was sentenced on Friday to 10 years in prison for inciting subversion.
The last time we met, Yang laughed at how a government publishing house had agreed to print a compilation of his writings, including several pieces that Chinese language websites in Australia had opted to self-censor. But that was two months ago, before the government's pre-emptive frenzy about a jasmine revolution.
For China's sake as much as Yang's, I hope the gap between laughingly legitimate and subversion has not become so arbitrary and narrow.