Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court, marking a significant development five years after his arrest on espionage charges. Australian officials suggest the sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment after two years.
Dr. Yang, a scholar and novelist who blogged about Chinese state affairs, denies the charges, which have not been disclosed publicly. The Australian government expressed being “appalled” by the outcome, leading Foreign Minister Penny Wong to summon China’s Ambassador to Australia for an explanation.
This verdict follows a landmark visit by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to China late last year, aiming to improve strained relations between the two countries. The Australian government has consistently called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness, and humane treatment for Dr. Yang, according to international norms and China’s legal obligations.
Dr. Yang’s case has been described as “political persecution” by his supporters, who claim that he is being punished for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and advocacy for universal values such as democracy and the rule of law. Despite having avenues of appeal available, concerns have been raised about his limited access to legal representation and a closed-door trial in 2021.
The sentencing of Dr. Yang is expected to have repercussions on bilateral relations between China and Australia, with experts suggesting it may strain ties further. The case highlights concerns about the opacity of the Chinese legal system, its resistance to foreign government requests, and its treatment of individuals who challenge it. Dr. Yang’s health has reportedly been declining, and he is said to be not receiving adequate medical treatment.