Yang Hengjun: Australian writer held in China for almost two years officially charged with espionage

By Ben Doherty

An Australian writer who has been detained by Beijing for more than 20 months has been charged with espionage by Chinese authorities.

Sources with knowledge of the case told the Guardian the supreme people’s procuratorate had informed Yang Hengjun and his legal team that his case had been transferred to Beijing second intermediate court for prosecution.

Yang, a former employee of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now democracy activist, was told on 7 October that he had been officially charged, according to his lawyer, Shang Baojun.

Yang’s wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, told the ABC she felt “helpless” after hearing her husband had been charged.

“He was officially indicted to the court and in accordance with the advice on indictment, the authority listed five crimes, however, due to confidentiality agreement, the lawyer can’t reveal any details.”

Friends told Reuters a judge was expected to be appointed in the next fortnight.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has previously said allegations Yang was a spy were “absolutely untrue”.

Yang has consistently maintained his innocence, and, in his rare messages to family and friends from within Beijing’s opaque legal system, has said he has not confessed to anything.

Last month, he rejected Chinese reports he had confessed to espionage, stating: “I am innocent and will fight to the end.

“I will never confess to something I haven’t done.

Consular meetings in September were the first time anybody outside China’s criminal justice system had seen Yang since last December – before the coronavirus pandemic swept the world. Australia’s consular agreement with China mandates monthly consular meetings.

The Guardian understands Yang was brought into meetings in handcuffs, a face mask and a blindfold by guards wearing full-body PPE. He was made to sit in a wooden chair fitted with a restraint across the arms that stopped him from standing. The blindfold was removed for discussion, but his face mask remained.

Yang said he had endured more than 300 interrogations, sometimes for hours in the middle of the night, from more than 30 people.

Earlier this year, sources told the Guardian that Yang had been “totally isolated” in an attempt to “break him”, with no phone calls, correspondence or consular visits. Messages from family and friends, or reports from the outside world, were not passed on.

Yang has been repeatedly told he faces execution, that his country has abandoned him, and his family and friends have betrayed him.

In messages from his detention, Yang has consistently denied making any confessions. “I am innocent. This is political persecution.

“I want to go to court. I was worried that Chinese authorities would make such claims when there can be no [local] media coverage; they cannot create rumours like this. I did not confess to anything criminal.”

Chongyi Feng, Yang’s doctoral supervisor and an associate professor in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, told the Guardian: “This is a typical political persecution for Yang’s political expression”.

There exists a range of espionage charges under Chinese law, carrying penalties from three years imprisonment to execution.

The conviction rate for those accused of a crime in China is 99%, in a criminal justice system almost entirely reliant on “confessions” obtained through long, secretive detentions.

The Australian government said on Saturday it had been informed that Chinese authorities “have decided to prosecute Australian citizen Dr Yang Hengjun on charges yet to be announced”.

Consular access via videolink to Australian embassy officials was restored in September after being suspended amid the coronavirus.

“We will continue to provide consular support to him and his family, and to advocate for his interests,” a spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Last month China’s foreign ministry confirmed another Australian, Chinese state television host Cheng Lei, had been detained in Beijing and was being investigated on suspicion of endangering national security.

Yang was born in Hubei in central China. He was formerly a diplomat before working in the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to Australia, then to the US.

A writer of spy novels, he has been a popular blogger, political commentator and agitator for democratic reforms in China for more than a decade.

Yang, who became an Australian citizen in 2002, had been living in the United States, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, before flying to Guangzhou with his family in January 2019. His wife and child were able to enter China, but authorities escorted Yang from the plane into detention.