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May 15, 2023, 1:19pm EDT
securityEast Asia

Who is the US citizen China just sentenced to life in prison for spying?

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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The News

China sentenced John Shing-Wan Leung, a 78-year-old U.S. citizen, to life imprisonment on Monday — more than two years after he was convicted of spying charges.

Leung, who is also a permanent resident of Hong Kong, was arrested by the National Security Bureau in Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai, under suspicion of engaging in espionage on April 15, 2021.

In a statement announcing the sentence on WeChat, authorities said that Leung would be “deprived of political rights” and fined 500,000 RMB ($72,000.) They did not share further details about Leung’s case or the charges against him but revealed his Hong Kong identity card number and passport number.

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Corresponding details of Leung’s background were discovered online. This is what we know about him.

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Know More

According to a 2004 profile of several overseas Chinese leaders in People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper in China, a man who shares the same name and birth date as Leung moved to the U.K. for school at the age of 16, before settling in New York City to work for the United Nations.

At the U.N., Leung allegedly began forming ties with both U.S. and Chinese government officials. After retiring in 1985, he founded a friendship association between Oklahoma City and Guangzhou in southern China, which served to actively promote “China-U.S. trade and cultural exchanges.”

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The group arranged for American businessmen and local government officials to travel to China, and hosted Chinese leaders during their visits to the U.S., its profile said.

According to multiple reports, Leung chaired the U.S. China People’s Friendship Association in 2013 — a now inoperative group based in Houston — which supported the passage of the controversial National Security Law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020. The South China Morning Post reported that a source close to Leung said he had been absent from the community since 2021.

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Step Back

Leung’s legal case took place amid China’s tightening grip on its anti-spying law, which it most recently expanded to target online platforms and the transfer of information from China to foreign businesses.

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In recent months, Chinese authorities have raided several U.S. consulting and due-diligence firms, including Bain and Mintz Group, detaining all five of the latter company’s China-based staff.

In March, authorities also arrested a Japanese national who worked at the drugmaker Astellas Pharma, under suspicion of spying. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said the executive was one of more than a dozen Japanese people detained by Chinese intelligence since 2015.

Details of cases involving espionage charges in China are rarely revealed to the public — and sometimes only once a conclusion has been reached.

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The View From the US

No public statements have been made from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau on Leung’s case, though a spokesperson from the former said that they were aware of reports but could not comment further due to privacy details.

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