China has sentenced Australian writer and pro-democracy activist Yang Hengjun to death with a two-year reprieve on charges of espionage, a verdict that has been condemned by Australia as “unacceptable” and will further strain already tense relations between the two countries.
Background on Yang Hengjun
Yang, 55, was born in China but gained Australian citizenship in 2002. A former Chinese diplomat turned blogger and spy novelist, he was living in New York when he was arrested in January 2019 on a trip back to China. His trial was held behind closed doors, apparently due to state secret laws, but is widely believed to have been politically motivated due to his criticism of China’s ruling Communist Party.
Yang had a large online following as a democracy activist, with over 130,000 followers across Chinese social media platforms before they were shut down. He also frequently criticized the Chinese government’s censorship and political repression.
His writings covered various sensitive topics in China, including freedoms in Hong Kong and ethnic minority rights in Xinjiang. Yang was represented by two Chinese government-appointed lawyers at his sentencing.
Verdict and Reactions
On February 5th, 2024, the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court handed Yang a death sentence with a two-year reprieve on charges of espionage. The verdict means the death penalty will be commuted to life imprisonment if he does not commit any new offenses over the next two years.
Australia has reacted angrily, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong calling the verdict “unacceptable” and saying it is not based on evidence or justice. Prime Minister Jim Chalmers said Australia will make formal protests to Beijing about Yang’s sentence. “My thoughts today are with Dr Yang and his family and loved ones,” he stated on Twitter.
Human rights groups also widely condemned the verdict as political persecution, highlighting Yang’s work as a long-time advocate for democracy in China. The ruling “shows how the Chinese justice system has sunk to a new low under President Xi Jinping,” stated Human Rights Watch.
Many also pointed to China’s history of using vague national security laws to detain foreigners amid political tensions. Previous foreign nationals given harsh sentences include Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were convicted of spying soon after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
|Writer, blogger, former Chinese diplomat
Nationality:|Australian citizen since 2002, born in China
|Arrest date: |January 2019, upon arrival in China|
|Sentence:|Death penalty with 2-year reprieve|
|Significance:| Highlights use of harsh sentences amid China-Australia tensions|
Implications for Australia-China Relations
Yang’s verdict poses a new threat to already strained diplomatic relations between Australia and China. Ties deteriorated sharply after Australia banned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from 5G networks in 2018 over security concerns.
China has since imposed a raft of trade sanctions on Australian exports, though the countries’ leaders met recently at the G20 summit in a sign of a tentative thaw. However, this death sentence will inflame tensions once more.
Australian Foreign Minister Wong has said she will continue to raise Yang’s case with Chinese authorities. But while the reprieve means the sentence could still theoretically be reduced, foreign governments have rarely succeeded in lobbying China to release high-profile detainees once national security charges are formally applied.
With Yang’s fate now lying with China’s opaque legal system, swollen with political influence, Canberra may have few options other than high-level protest.
What Happens Next
China continues to insist Australian detainees are held according to Chinese law. The reprieve likely means Yang’s sentence will eventually be commuted to a life sentence unless diplomatic efforts eventually secure his release.
Australia has not detailed what specific action it will now take beyond formal protests. But options include issuing public demands, imposing targeted human rights sanctions on Chinese officials, and attempting backroom negotiations.
Much will depend on whether Beijing wants to draw a line under the case to curb further damage to China-Australia relations, or sees harsh sentences of foreign nationals as an effective diplomatic weapon amid broader tensions. For now, Yang faces an uncertain wait on death row unless a diplomatic solution breaks the deadlock.
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