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China gives Australian Yang Hengjun suspended death sentence in spy case

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Chinese authorities ordered a suspended death sentence for Australian writer Yang Hengjun, detained in China for more than five years on espionage charges, in a case that underlines the opacity of China’s justice system and threatens a fragile rapprochement between China and Australia.

Yang, a former employee of China’s state security services turned author of spy novels and pro-democracy blogger, was given a suspended death sentence on Monday that can be commuted to life imprisonment after two years, according to a friend who was told the news by Yang’s wife.

The sentencing by a Beijing court comes after a closed-door trial in May 2021 where details of Yang’s charges were never released. He has denied all charges.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her government was “appalled” at the sentence.

“This is harrowing news for Dr. Yang, his family and all who have supported him,” Wong wrote in a statement. “All Australians want to see Dr. Yang reunited with his family. We will not relent in our advocacy.”

Yang was detained at Guangzhou Airport in January 2019 while visiting China with his family. He was formally charged with spying on China for another government, but authorities have not disclosed which country.

Yang’s wife and an official from the Australian Embassy were at the hearing, which lasted 30 minutes, according to Chongyi Feng, an associate professor at the University of Technology in Sydney who is a friend of Yang’s.

Feng said Yang’s wife, Yuan Ruijian, said she was able to make eye contact with Yang briefly before he was taken away. “He looked very thin and fragile,” Feng said.

Feng condemned the sentencing of his friend and called on the international community, especially the Australian government, to maintain pressure on Beijing.

“He’s [being] punished for his publications advocating universal values like democracy, rule of law, human rights, and he also criticized the government for human rights abuses in China,” he said.

Yang’s sentence comes less than four months after the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who had been detained in China for three years. The contrast between the two cases underlines the limits of new efforts to repair strained relations between Canberra and Beijing.

Cheng’s release followed lengthy negotiations between the two countries. Like Yang, Cheng, an anchor for an English-language state broadcaster, was found guilty on charges of espionage during a trial held behind closed doors.

And while her release appeared to reflect the recent stabilization of relations between the two countries after years of discord, Yang’s severe sentence will inject the relationship with renewed tension, experts said.

“This just shows you the limits of stabilization,” said James Curran, a history professor at the University of Sydney who recently wrote a book on relations between Beijing and Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has tried to improve the relationship without making concessions to China, culminating in a trip to Beijing in November, he said. But Yang’s sentence will be a setback.

“We’re dealing with an Australian citizen on a suspended death sentence, facing life imprisonment,” Curran said. “This will undoubtedly cast a dark shadow, a pall, over the management of the relationship going forward. It won’t derail it, but it will certainly inject a real gloom over the Australia-China relationship over the next six or 12 months.”

The sentence was at the extreme end of what was expected, and showed that at least part of the Chinese government was “indifferent to its impact on bilateral ties with Australia,” said Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Above all, the sentence seemed to be aimed at pro-democracy activists like Yang, he added.

“The inescapable conclusion is that he’s going to die in prison,” McGregor said. “So somebody somewhere is trying to send a message to people like Dr. Yang.”

Both experts said the Australian government had few options for how to respond. Australian media reported that the Albanese administration had summoned the Chinese ambassador for talks in a sign of its displeasure with the sentence.

“Lately we’ve seen Australia and China put a floor under the relationship,” McGregor said. “This is a reminder that there is a ceiling, and at times it’s very low.”

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