Yang Hengjun: China suspends death sentence for Australian author, Canberra condemns

John Min/Imagine China/Reuters

Chinese-Australian author Yang Hengjun attends a lecture at the Beijing Institute of Technology on 18 November 2010 in Beijing, China.


A Chinese-Australian author has received a suspended death sentence in China after five years on espionage charges, according to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen and Chinese-born democracy activist, was sentenced by a court in Beijing on Monday, Wong said. ReportHe said the Australian government was “appalled” by the sentence.

“We understand that if the individual does not commit serious crimes within a two-year period, this can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years,” Wong said.

“This is heartbreaking news for Dr Yang, his family and all those who supported him. Our thoughts are with them.

Yang, 58, was Arrested in 2019 at the airport when he arrived in the southern city of Guangzhou with his wife from New York to visit family in China.

He later Accused of espionage – He has denied the allegations.

Yang's case is shrouded in secrecy. Chinese authorities did not provide any details about his charges – including which country he was accused of spying for.

In 2021, there was his trial Held behind closed doors Australian diplomats were denied access to a heavily guarded court in Beijing. Judgment and punishment were repeatedly delayed.

China's court system is notoriously opaque — especially in cases involving national security — and the conviction rate is over 99%, according to legal observers.

Yang has suffered ill health in detention. Last year, Yang said He feared he might die in prisonAfter a large cyst was discovered on his kidney.

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In her statement, Australian Foreign Minister Wong advocated for Yang with China “at every opportunity, and at the highest levels”.

He pledged to continue to push for Yang's interests and well-being, including appropriate medical treatment, and to provide diplomatic assistance to him and his family.

At a news conference on Monday, Wong said he called China's ambassador Xiao Qian to explain the sentence, while acknowledging it was “a decision of the Chinese legal system.”

“All Australians want to see Dr Yang reunited with his family,” Wong said, adding that Yang had “options” to appeal the sentence.

Yang's friend and former PhD supervisor in Australia, Feng Chongqi, called his punishment “a barbaric act by the Chinese Communist regime”.

“Yang is being punished by the Chinese government for human rights abuses in China and for his advocacy of universal values ​​such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

“This is outrageous political persecution and the unacceptable arbitrary imprisonment of an innocent Australian citizen.”

Feng also expressed concern about Yang's health, saying he is now “very ill”, and called on the Australian government to arrange medical parole for Yang and bring him back to Australia as soon as possible.

Yang worked as an official in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs before moving to Australia.

Before his detention, he posted satirical comments critical of the Chinese government to his 130,000 followers on X, commonly known as Twitter. He also wrote a series of spy novels.

Although he holds Australian citizenship, Yang is known to spend most of his time in the United States, where he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York.

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Human rights organizations also condemned Yang's sentence.

Daniela Cowshon, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said the sentence was “devastating” for Yang and his family and called for “stronger action” from Canberra to increase pressure on Beijing.

“Years of arbitrary detention, allegations of torture, closed and unfair trial without access to lawyers of his own choice – such a harsh sentence is dangerous,” he said.

“It shines a light on Beijing's opaque criminal justice system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

It is not the first time the fate of Australians caught up in national security cases has fueled tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

Last October, Australian television presenter Cheng Lee He was released by China and returned to the country To his family more than three years after being detained on opaque espionage charges.

Cheng, a former business anchor for China's state broadcaster CGTN and a mother of two, is accused of illegally providing state secrets to foreign countries.

Beijing has kept details of the charges against Cheng in custody for three years, and the Chinese court has repeatedly delayed a verdict.

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