The latest news headlines about the future of Chinese Australian Yang Hengjun brought the worst possible news for him, his family and friends. He has received a suspended death sentence for alleged spying on the Chinese government. The sentence could be reduced to life imprisonment after two years of good behaviour.
The 58-year-old Chinese spy novel writer worked for the Chinese Ministry of State Security before emigrating to Australia in 1999. He was arrested in Guangzhou in 2019 during a visa renewal trip. His trial for espionage took place in 2021, but the sentence has just been made public.
The Australian government was very displeased with the announcement, especially Foreign Minister Penny Wong. She expressed her outrage during a media conference:
Australia and China’s push to stabilise relations after years of turmoil has been shattered by the shock suspended death sentence handed to Australian academic Yang Hengjun after five years of being held on vague espionage charges.
The Australian National Daily also devoted much of its news coverage to Yang’s sentence, including an editorial. It concluded with a striking condemnation of communism:
The incompatibility of communism with Western values of decency, fairness and the rule of law looms starker than ever.
Like most Murdoch online publications, it is also behind a paywall.
There had been hopes that Yang would be freed, given the lull in China’s so-called hostage diplomacy, which has coincided with improving relations between the two nations. Prime Minister Albanese visited China in November 2023 and held talks with President Xi. The subsequent release of journalist Cheng Lei in October 2023 seemed to be pointing in that direction.
Some commentators believe that Yang’s treatment is a form of diplomatic blackmail. Justin Bassi posted his views on The Strategist, the commentary site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI):
Whose good behaviour? Not Yang’s but ours—Australia’s. With Yang as a hostage, Australia is being blackmailed into submission and silence.
Beijing is masterful at planting self-doubt in the minds of rivals. If we speak out against Chinese bullying of neighbours in the South China Sea, will Yang be executed? If we name China as a perpetrator of cyberattacks, will Yang be executed?
ASPI has close ties to the United States.
Daryl Guppy at Pearls and Irritations, an Australian public policy journal, accused the Australian government of hypocrisy over the issue of secret trials:
We are aghast with horror and condemnation but it mirrors what we do ourselves. Espionage and security cases are not usually held in open courts, outsiders are not permitted to observe, evidence is covered by a shroud of ‘secrecy’ and sentences are often draconian.
China is not unique in this approach and nor is Australia immune.
Guppy cited the cases of Witness K and Witness J, two people whose trials were held behind closed doors in Australia.
He also raised the government’s lack of sympathy for Julian Assange. This comparison was also bobbing up on social media:
Well this is quite amazing. When it's China involved, on behalf of Mr Yang, @SenatorWong is a roaring lioness. If it's the US and Julian Assange's life is on the line the lioness becomes a mewling kitten.https://t.co/g7manWHWC3
— Max Le Blond (@Balgowallah) February 5, 2024
On Bluesky, user YTSL raised another aspect of the tug-of-war between Beijing and Canberra:
Something worth noting (and may not be readily apparent): Yang Hengjun is an Australian citizen. But to the Chinese government, he's Chinese.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called out, in the strongest terms, what it sees as an attack on press freedom:
🇨🇳A new stage has been reached in the terror that Beijing wants to impose on the press: 🇦🇺 political commentator #YangHengjun received a death penalty for critical articles. This inhumane and absurd “espionage” sentence must be overturned. #FreeYangHengjun!https://t.co/dISSkubAWL
— RSF (@RSF_inter) February 5, 2024
However, the chances of a successful legal appeal seem very slim, according to Professor Donald Rothwell at The Conversation.
It seems that only political intervention at the highest level offers any hope.
There has been considerable speculation online about why China is risking recent diplomatic and trade improvements. Many believe that Hengjun's work before emigrating to Australia in 2002 is a major factor. Before emigrating, he worked at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of State Security (which China denies). Yang’s friend and colleague Feng Chongyi is reported as saying that the spying charge was based on accusations that he gave secrets to the Taiwan government 28 years ago.
Some people on social media believe that he may, in fact, be a Western spy. Shorey suggested on X (formerly Twitter) that where there is smoke there may be fire:
Maybe he IS a spy ? He worked in Chinese Intelligence, now at Atlantic Council(US), spends most of his time in US, & has dual citizenship.
Why should we advocate for him? pic.twitter.com/VGNVTIRy25
— Shorey (@ShoreyThe3rd) February 6, 2024
In a background piece for the Guardian following Yang's 2019 arrest, Ben Dohert and Yang Tian canvassed his role as a spy novel writer:
Yang had designs on fame as a writer. Fatal Weakness was quickly followed by Fatal Weapon and Fatal Assassination, a kind of Chinese Jason Bourne series, using fiction to explore the arcane operations behind China’s Ministry of State Security.
In a 2017, Yang said his intention was to “set a precedent for the spy fiction genre in China, which remains to this day the only literary work of its kind in the country”.
They also quote from Yang’s blogging in 2017:
I myself have become the target of the ‘spycatcher games’, every month I face a fresh round of allegations of being a spy, it seems many readers would like to see me star in my own erotic thriller.
At Pearls and Irritations, Percy Allan regards Yang as more a fantasist than a secret agent. He explores the ‘murkier’ aspects of his past in Why Yang Hengjun should be released — he’s Walter Mitty not James Bond! He concludes:
I hope he is released as a delusional Walter Mitty rather than a threat to China’s state security.
Walter Mitty is a fictional character who:
…spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.
Amnesty International has an online petition demanding that Chinese authorities quash his sentence.
Finally, a word from activist Chinese Australian Bad ї ucao:
My art for Dr. Yang Hengjun 杨恒均，an Australian citizen, writer & pro-democracy activist.
Dr. Yang has received death sentence from a Chinese Court for his fight for civil rights.
He is innocent & must be free.
Please feel free to use the art & advocate for him.#SaveDrYang pic.twitter.com/18S6XDRbkK
— 巴丢草 Bad ї ucao (@badiucao) February 6, 2024