China charges Australian man with spying

Yang Hengjun and wife Yuan Xiaoliang. Picture: Chongyi Feng via AP
Yang Hengjun and wife Yuan Xiaoliang. Picture: Chongyi Feng via AP

CHINESE-Australian writer and democracy advocate Yang Hengjun has been charged in China with spying, sparking deep concern and disappointment from the Morrison government.

Dr Yang’s lawyer believes the charges could be in relation to spying for Australia.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne holds serious concerns for his welfare and the harsh conditions under which he has been held in Beijing for more than seven months.

“Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits,” Senator Payne said on Tuesday.

“It is important, and we expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met.

“I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.”

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne. Picture: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

Melbourne lawyer Rob Stary said the basis for the espionage charges was unclear.

“We think it relates to espionage on behalf of Australia, but it’s not specified on the charge sheet,” Mr Stary told AAP.

“We’d obviously be disturbed by that if it was the allegation, because there is absolutely no foundation for it at all.”

Dr Yang, a former diplomat with China’s ministry of foreign affairs who became a pro-democracy campaigner and an Australian citizen in 2002, was detained in Guangzhou after arriving from the US in January.

Mr Stary suspects the espionage charge relates to Dr Yang’s activism.

“He’s a blogger and that’s what he does, he’s an academic, he’s of a different ilk,” he told AAP.

“He had been active and he’s been politically active in promoting democratic values. That’s the basis of it, as we understand.”

Mr Stary said the matter needed to be resolved diplomatically.

“If there is no real or proper foundation for those charges, then he ought to be released and repatriated.”

Senator Payne has discussed his plight with China’s foreign minister twice, and has written to him three times.

Embassy officials have visited Dr Yang seven times since his detention, most recently on July 25. They have another visit approved for Tuesday.

“I will continue to advocate strongly on behalf of Dr Yang to ensure a satisfactory explanation of the basis for his arrest, that he is treated humanely and that he is allowed to return home,” Senator Payne said.

Last month, China told Senator Payne to stop “issuing irresponsible remarks” and interfering in Dr Yang’s case and reiterated its displeasure on Tuesday.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said DrYang’s case is being handled in accordance with the law and that he is in good health.

China is displeased with the Australian government’s comments about the case, Geng said.

“The Australian side should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not … interfere with a Chinese case,” he said.

Dr Yang is a dual Chinese and Australian citizen, but Beijing does not recognise dual citizenship.

The 53-year-old has a doctorate from the University of Technology Sydney and was living in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University before being detained.

Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson said the treatment of Dr Yang is “absolutely chilling”.

“For seven months, Yang has been held in harsh conditions on vague grounds on endangering national security, with no access to his family or lawyer of his choosing,” she said.

She said the Australian government should work with other governments whose citizens are wrongfully detained in China in order to step up pressure.