Chinese-Australian Writer Could Face Harsh Sentence Amid Worsening Ties

Yang Hengjun is tried in secret, as Australia says he was "arbitrarily detained" by China.
Chinese-Australian Writer Could Face Harsh Sentence Amid Worsening Ties Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher speaks to reporters outside a courthouse in Beijing where writer Yang Hengun went on rial, May 27, 2021..

Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun could face a lengthy jail term following his trial behind closed doors for "espionage" in Beijing this week.

Yang, 54, an outspoken Australian writer and political commentator who formerly held Chinese nationality, was detained on arrival at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19, 2019, then taken to Beijing by officers of the state security police.

His trial took place behind closed doors at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on Thursday, according to foreign affairs ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

"By law, this case wasn't open to the public because it involved state secrets," Zhao told reporters in Beijing on Thursday. "This is entirely legal and reasonable."

Two lawyers were allowed into court with him, but foreign diplomats and journalists were all kept outside of a police cordon around the court building.

Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher said he was denied entry due to coronavirus restrictions.

'Arbitrary detention'

But he added that he had already been warned that there would be no access to the trial, as the case allegedly involved matters of national security.

"This is deeply regrettable and concerning," he said. "We've had longstanding concerns about this case, including lack of transparency, and therefore have concluded that it's an incidence of arbitrary detention."

"Regardless of what happens today, we will continue to advocate strongly on behalf of Dr. Yang, for his interests and his rights, and continue to offer consular support for himself and his family," Fletcher said.

Zhao hit out at what he described as Australia's "unreasonable interference in China's judicial sovereignty."

He said China had lodged "solemn representations" with Australia over the issue.

Yang Hengjun’s friend and associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney Feng Chongyi said the secret trial was just a case of going through the motions.

"No witnesses are allowed to testify at these secret trials," Feng said. "It is based on evidence submitted by the prosecution, which can't be [read or] checked [by the defense]."

"It's a perfect opportunity for the government to bring whatever it wants as evidence ... because the whole trial is a mere formality," he said.

Party-driven verdict

Yang's sentence will be announced "at a later date," according to the court.

Feng said that decision won't in fact be made by the court.

"The sentencing will be decided by the [ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s] political and legal affairs at a higher level, not at the level of the court," Feng said.

Joseph Cheng, former politics professor at Hong Kong's City University, said Yang had become something of a political football amid worsening ties between Beijing and Canberra.

"It is difficult to guess just how harsh a sentence [Yang will receive], because we don't know the details of the charges," Cheng told RFA.

"Australia-China relations have seen some serious setbacks in the past two years, amid ongoing diplomatic disputes and mutual attacks between the two countries," he said.

"It has been hard [for Australia] to render assistance," Cheng said. "If diplomatic relations were good, it might be possible to secure his release and return to Australia, but that's impossible when relations are this bad."

Feng has previously claimed that Yang is a former agent of China's state security police, citing a letter Yang wrote to him in 2011, revealing that he had worked for China's ministry of state security for 10 years starting in 1989.

According to Feng's account of the letter given to Reuters in October 2020, Yang stopped working for the ministry on moving to Australia a decade later.

According to the letter, Yang worked as a Chinese spy in Hong Kong from 1992, and continued to do so while working as a researcher at a Washington think-tank.

Reported by Gao Feng and Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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