In a recent development, Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer imprisoned in China for five years on charges of espionage, has been handed a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court. Yang, a 58-year-old blogger and pro-democracy activist, was arrested in January 2019 at Guangzhou airport alongside his wife.
The court accused him of “endangering national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people.” The suspended death sentence allows for the possibility of commutation to life imprisonment based on good behavior.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressed deep dismay at the court’s decision, stating that the Australian government is appalled and would respond “in the strongest terms,” including summoning the Chinese ambassador. Wong acknowledged the distress felt by Yang and his family, highlighting the years of uncertainty they have endured.
Yang has consistently denied the charges, a sentiment echoed by friends and family. Feng Chongyi, a friend and colleague, believes Yang is being punished for his outspoken criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Feng mentioned that Yang had worked for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) for 14 years before moving to Australia in 2000, where he transformed into a liberal and began writing spy novels as an outlet for his frustrations with his former work.
Yang’s trial occurred in May 2021, during which he had limited access to lawyers. China has not disclosed the exact charges against him or specified the country for which he is alleged to have been spying.
Supporters of Yang expressed dismay at the court’s decision, emphasizing his commitment to advocating for human rights and democratic values. The international community is closely monitoring the situation as Australia prepares to address this concerning development with China.