China Court Gives Australian Writer Suspended Death Penalty

Australian writer Yang Hengjun has received a suspended death penalty from a Chinese court, five years after his arrest and accusation of spying.

The sentence could be reduced to life imprisonment after two years, according to Australian authorities.

Dr. Yang, a scholar and novelist who has expressed his views on China’s governance through blogging, refutes the undisclosed accusations. The Australian government has expressed its shock at the verdict.

Penny Wong, Australia’s Foreign Minister, demanded an explanation from China’s Ambassador to Australia, announcing on Monday that Australia’s objections will be forcefully communicated to Beijing.

“We have consistently called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness, and humane treatment for Dr. Yang, in accordance with international norms and China’s legal obligations”, she said in a statement.

“All Australians want to see Dr. Yang reunited with his family. We will not relent in our advocacy”.

Australian officials have voiced concerns about Dr. Yang’s conditions, while China’s foreign ministry cautioned against external interference in the legal process, urging respect for its judicial independence.

Supporters of Dr. Yang have labeled his imprisonment as “political harassment”.

Feng Chongyi, a Sydney-based academic and friend of Dr. Yang, stated, “He is being punished by the Chinese government for criticizing human rights abuses in China and advocating for universal values such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law”.

Dr. Yang, formerly employed by China’s Ministry of State Security and known as a “democracy advocate”, often steered clear of directly challenging the government in his work.

While residing in New York, he traveled to Guangzhou in January 2019 with his wife and her child, both Chinese nationals, for a visa renewal, during which he was detained at the airport.

Since his arrest, Dr. Yang’s legal proceedings, including a private trial in 2021, have been largely concealed from the public.

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Elaine Pearson criticized the judicial process in Dr. Yang’s case for its lack of transparency and fairness, mentioning delayed and restricted access to legal aid, a secretive trial, and Dr. Yang’s claims of torture and coerced confessions.

According to Ms. Wong, despite the challenges, Dr. Yang has the option to appeal. However, his sons in Australia have reported his deteriorating health and lack of medical care.

Dr. Yang’s and Australian journalist Cheng Lei’s detentions have strained relations between Beijing and Canberra, which had begun to improve with Australia’s government change in 2022.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, has warned that Dr. Yang’s sentencing could severely affect diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“It displays on a wide screen the opacity of the Chinese legal system, its imperviousness to reasonable requests by foreign governments on behalf of their citizens, and its vindictiveness to people who challenge it”, he said.

“This sentence is at the most extreme end of the spectrum in terms of what could have been expected. The inescapable conclusion is that he will die in prison”.