China hands Australian writer a suspended death penalty in a move Canberra condemns

Sydney CNNA Chinese-Australian writer has received a suspended death penalty in China, five years after he was detained on espionage charges, according to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen and democracy activist born in China, was sentenced Monday by a court in Beijing, Wong said in a statement, adding that the Australian government was “appalled” by the sentence.

“We understand this can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if the individual does not commit any serious crimes in the two-year period,” Wang said.

“This is harrowing news for Dr Yang, his family and all who have supported him. Our thoughts are with them.”

Yang, 58, was detained in 2019 at the airport when he arrived in the southern city of Guangzhou with his wife from New York to see family in China.

He was later charged with espionage – accusations he has denied.

Yang’s case has been shrouded in secrecy. Chinese authorities have offered no details on his charges – including which country he was accused of spying for.

In 2021, his trial was held behind closed doors in a heavily guarded court in Beijing, to which Australian diplomats were denied entry. The verdict and sentence were repeatedly delayed.

China’s court system is notoriously opaque – especially on cases involving national security – and has a conviction rate of above 99%, according to legal observers.

Yang has suffered from poor health in detention. Last year, Yang said he feared he might die in prison, after a large cyst was found on his kidney.

Australia has advocated for Yang with China “at every opportunity, and at the highest levels,” said Wong, the Australian foreign minister, in her statement.

She vowed to continue to press for Yang’s interests and wellbeing, including appropriate medical treatment, and provide consular assistance to him and his family.

At a news conference Monday, Wong said she had summoned China’s ambassador, Xiao Qian, to explain the sentence, while acknowledging it was a “decision of the Chinese legal system.”

“All Australians want to see Dr Yang reunited with his family,” Wong said, adding that Yang has “options” to appeal the sentence.

Feng Chongyi, Yang’s friend and former PhD supervisor in Australia, called his sentence a “barbarous act by the Chinese Communist regime.”

“Yang is punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

“This is outraging political persecution and an unacceptable arbitrary imprisonment of an innocent Australian citizen.”

Feng also expressed concern for Yang’s health, saying he is now “critically ill” and calling on the Australian government to arrange medical parole for Yang and bring him back to Australia as soon as possible.

‘Alarming’ sentence

Yang worked as an official with the Chinese Foreign Ministry before emigrating to Australia.

Before his detention, he routinely posted satirical commentaries critical of the Chinese government to his nearly 130,000 followers on X, previously known as Twitter. He also wrote a series of spy novels.

Though he holds Australian citizenship, Yang is known to spend most of his time in the United States, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York.

Yang’s sentence was also condemned by human rights groups.

Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said the sentence was “catastrophic” for Yang and his family and called for “stronger action” from Canberra to increase pressure on Beijing.

“After years of arbitrary detention, allegations of torture, a closed and unfair trial without access to his own choice of lawyers – a sentence as severe as this is alarming,” she said.

“It shines a light on Beijing’s opaque criminal justice system, which the Chinese Communist Party controls.”

It is not the first time the fate of Australians caught up in national security cases have sparked tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

Last October, Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei was released by China and returned home to her family more than three years after she was detained on opaque espionage charges.

Cheng, a former business anchor for China’s state broadcaster CGTN and mother of two, was accused of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.

Beijing did not reveal details of the allegations against Cheng throughout her three years of detention, and the Chinese court delayed handing down verdict multiple times.