Chinese-born Australian writer Yang Hengjun was handed a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court on Monday — five years after being arrested in China for spying, where he has remained in imprisonment.
The 58-year-old pro-democracy activist and blogger was accused of endangering “national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people,” Al Jazeera reported, although no details of the charges have been made public – including which country he is alleged to have spied for.
Yang, who was living in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019, was given a suspended death sentence, which may be commuted to life imprisonment after two years. He had previously worked for China’s Ministry of State Security for more than a decade, but started writing spy novels on the side.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters of “our dismay, our despair, our frustration, but to put it really simply, our outrage at this verdict” late Monday.
Yang’s supporters had been hopeful that Yang’s release would be imminent, after Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei was freed from Chinese prison late last year following negotiations between the two governments.
The death sentence may cast a shadow over China-Australia relations
In November Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used a visit to Beijing to “turn a page” in the China-Australia playbook following years of trade disputes — but Yang’s sentence may threaten any warming of ties.
“Australia lost its fear of the Chinese Communist Party…Now Beijing is setting out to recondition us to be afraid once more,” wrote Peter Hartcher, the political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, citing a December incident involving Chinese intimidation of an Australian naval crew as well as Yang’s punishment. It’s unclear what next steps the Australian government will take — “because taking countermeasures is hard and possibly escalatory,” Hartcher wrote, adding that the more China-friendly Albanese government is “stuck in its own construct of ‘stabilizing relations’.”
The incident won’t derail Sino-Australian relations – but it will “certainly inject a real gloom” over ties for the next six to twelve months, University of Sydney professor James Curran told The Washington Post.
Yang’s ‘good behavior’ has prompted an unusual move from China
Yang is entitled to appeal his sentence through China’s legal system – although criminal appeals in the country are almost never successful. The writer’s poor health stemming from a recently discovered kidney cyst would give the Australian government humanitarian grounds to continue advocating for his release, but otherwise, Canberra has limited options, wrote Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law, for The Conversation. Yang’s death sentence was suspended for two years due to “good behavior”, Rothwell noted — a highly unusual move on the part of the Chinese government, which may see it commute the intended capital punishment to life imprisonment.
Arrest comes as China continues its nationwide crackdown on dissent
Yang’s sentence comes as China continues its crackdown on a flowering of dissent that saw rare protests against the government’s zero-COVID policies in late 2022 and a nationwide #MeToo movement that has garnered widespread attention.
On the same day as Yang’s verdict, a Chinese court sentenced Li Qiaochu, a women’s and labor rights activist, to more than three years in prison, the South China Morning Post reported.
Li has been targeted by Chinese authorities for publishing articles about the torture inflicted on her partner, Xu Zhiyong, who is also in detention, according to Amnesty International, which stated that “It is shameful that the Chinese authorities have jailed Li for speaking out…rather than properly investigating the allegations she made.”