Australia 'deeply concerned' as writer faces China spying trial

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia on Wednesday expressed deep concern at the prosecution of writer Yang Hengjun after Beijing officials confirmed an espionage case against him would go ahead.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said officials had been shown no evidence to support charges against the Chinese-Australian, despite repeatedly asking Beijing for details of the case.

"The government is disappointed and deeply concerned that Chinese authorities have decided to prosecute Australian citizen and academic Dr Yang Hengjun," Payne said in a statement.

Relations between China and Australia have been peppered with spy scandals and trade rows in recent months, with both sides accusing the other of harassing citizens as diplomatic leverage.

Yang Hengjun, a pen name for the spy novelist and former diplomat Yang Jun, became an Australian citizen in 2002.

A prolific blogger on politics in China and described by fans as the "democracy peddler", he was taken into custody in January 2019 during a rare visit to his homeland, prompting protests from the Australian government.

Authorities took over a year to announce the espionage charge against him.

Since then, Beijing has said little about Yang's fate, while Australia's foreign minister has accused Chinese authorities of refusing him access to his family or lawyers, and interrogating him while shackled.

On Monday Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed "espionage" charges had been filed against Yang and that the case had been accepted by a court.

"The relevant Chinese departments are strictly handling the case according to law, and are fully protecting all of Yang Jun's legal rights," he added.

His lawyer, Shang Baojun, told AFP that Yang's case had entered the court of first instance, though in China's opaque legal system that does not mean his trial has started.

The writer has denied the charges.

Yang is one of several foreign nationals arrested in China on allegations of spying in recent years.

Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been held in Chinese prisons since December 2018, charged with espionage but yet to go on trial.

Australian Cheng Lei, an anchor for China's English-language state broadcaster CGTN, has been detained since at least August 14.

She stands accused of "criminal activities endangering China’s national security".

Two other Australian reporters -- Bill Birtles and Michael Smith -- fled China shortly after Cheng's detention, also fearing arrest.