The already strained diplomatic relations between China and Australia took another hit this week when a Beijing court handed down a suspended death sentence to jailed Australian writer Yang Hengjun. The ruling comes more than five years after Yang was first detained in China on dubious espionage charges that were never substantiated.
Yang, a former Chinese diplomat turned blogger and novelist who was openly critical of the authoritarian Beijing government, was taken into custody in January 2019 upon arriving in Guangzhou from New York. He was held incommunicado for several months before being formally arrested in August 2019 on charges of espionage. Yang’s closed-door trial was set for May 27, 2021 but was repeatedly delayed until the court finally announced its verdict this week.
The Australian government said Yang was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, meaning his sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment if he does not commit any other crimes during that period. Foreign Minister Penny Wong called the ruling “harrowing news” and said Australia would continue advocating for Yang’s interests and wellbeing.
Human rights groups condemned the harsh sentence as an attempt by China to intimidate and silence critics abroad. Even more outrageous is that Yang may have been punished for being a China critic,” said Maya Wang, China director at Human Rights Watch. Australian parliamentarian Dave Sharma said securing Yang’s freedom “must be a line in the sand.”
Yang’s detention in 2019 came shortly after China arrested two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on similarly dubious charges. Their arrest was seen as retaliation after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request. Spavor and Kovrig were eventually released in September 2021 after Meng was allowed to return to China.
The episode highlighted China’s brazen use of “hostage diplomacy” to achieve political ends and raised concerns that Yang could face a similar fate. According to the 2020 US State Department report on human rights in China, Yang was interrogated over 300 times while in detention, often for up to five hours at a time. He was also denied access to his family members and legal counsel for prolonged periods.
Groups like Human Rights Watch have documented a pattern of China detaining foreign nationals on trumped up national security charges, often based on their criticism of the Chinese government. Both Yang and the two Canadians appeared to simply be pawns in a bigger diplomatic spat between the countries.
Yang, who gave up his Chinese citizenship in the 1990s and became an Australian citizen, was known for using his blog and spy novels to candidly criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. His harsh sentence now will likely further strain ties between Australia and its largest trading partner at a time when relations are already at a low point.
The two countries have clashed over a range of issues recently including Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 as well as its ban on Huawei’s 5G network. China has retaliated with trade sanctions and travel warnings against Australia.
Securing Yang’s release could help mend fences but the suspended death sentence will be seen as an aggressive move by China. Australian officials have vowed to keep up pressure for his freedom but China has shown little inclination to back down quickly in diplomatic spats.
The fate of Yang Hengjun now hangs in the balance as he faces the possibility of life in prison if China deems he committed any other “crimes” over the next two years. For critics of authoritarian regimes around the world, his case underscores the harsh consequences faced by those who dare to speak out against repressive governments.