Diplomats Barred From Trial of Australian Writer Yang Hengjun

After being held without trial for over two years, Australian writer Yang Hengjun was tried on murky espionage charges in Beijing on Thursday, March 27. If convicted (fewer than .1% of trials end in acquittal), Yang faces at least three years in prison. If he is found guilty of “endangering national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people,” he could be executed. In a statement, Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said, “Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang.”

At The Wall Street Journal, Mike Cherney and Jonathan Cheng reported on Yang’s secretive trial and one possible explanation for his detention:

The trial of Yang Hengjun, an Australian blogger and spy novelist, took place behind closed doors at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Thursday. Speaking outside the courthouse before the trial was set to begin, Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, said Australian diplomats were told they couldn’t enter the court because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he said China’s Foreign Ministry told the Australians that access was denied because it is a national-security case.

[…] Mr. Yang was born in China and once worked for the Chinese government before migrating to Australia. Most recently, he was living in the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, according to Amnesty International Australia, which is campaigning for his release. On social media, Mr. Yang was critical of China’s Communist Party and wrote about the benefits of freedom and democracy, said people familiar with his writings.

[…] China views such statements as a betrayal because it believes Chinese people should be loyal to the motherland, Mr. Lee said. That view also underpins China’s recent actions in Hong Kong, where China is exerting more control, as well as its more strident approach recently toward Taiwan, an island that China regards as part of its territory, Mr. Lee said. [Source]

Yang is one of a handful of foreign nationals held on similar charges, including his compatriot, former CGTN anchor Cheng Lei, who was arrested in 2020 and charged with leaking state secrets in 2021. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in December, 2018, just one month before Yang. They were tried in March of this year, but the verdicts have not been announced. Just as in Kovrig and Spavor’s trials, diplomats were barred from entering the courtroom, in violation of consular agreements. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson:

“This is deeply regrettable and concerning and unsatisfactory. We’ve had longstanding concerns about this case, including the lack of transparency, and therefore have concluded it is an instance of arbitrary detention.”

On Thursday afternoon China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said that cases of national security are not open to the public, and accused Australia of “gross interference” in China’s handling of the case, with Fletcher’s comments and the request to attend the trial. Zhao said China had made “stern representations” to Australia.

[…] China’s notoriously opaque justice system is even more so when it comes to national security cases involving foreigners. Fletcher said the only information the Australian government had received about the case was that Yang’s charges related to espionage. He was critical of the refusal to allow him or others access to the courtroom.

“It’s a treaty obligation [to allow consular access] and it’s also necessary to give, not only our government but other governments, confidence in the process.” [Source]


Yang was represented by prominent human rights lawyers Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun, who have previously taken high-profile cases like those of Xu Zhangrun, Pu Zhiqiang, Liu Xiaobo, and Liu Xia. At Reuters, Kirsty Needham and Cate Cadell provided further reporting on Yang’s legal defense:

Details of the Yang case have been shrouded in secrecy, with no information released on which espionage agency he is alleged to have acted for. If convicted Yang faces a jail term of 10 years or more on charges of endangering national security.

Human rights lawyers Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun represented Yang at Thursday’s proceedings, which continued into the afternoon as his lawyers responded to the charges, a friend of Yang’s with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Yang’s wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, was unable to attend the court hearing after her application was rejected, friends told Reuters. [Source]

Yang has consistently protested his innocence. In a letter to his family released before the trial, Yang wrote: “worst comes to the worst, please explain to the people inside China what I did, and the significance of my writing to people in China”. From Eryk Bagshaw at The Sydney Morning Herald:

In a final message to his family and supporters before the trial begins on Thursday, the 56-year-old said there was nothing more liberating than having those fears realised. “I have no fear now,” he said. “I will never compromise.”

[…] “I want to go to Australia, a heaven-like place. I also want to see the green mountains and rivers in China. I also want to revisit Hong Kong, a place where I worked for six years for the Chinese government, and where I got ignited and developed by its wealthy society and some freedoms. I also want to return to the United States and continue to do research work at Columbia University. I have many things to do.”

“He asked for an open-door trial so that he can do a decent defence and allow lawyers to lodge a decent defence but that was denied,” [Yang’s friend and former supervisor Feng Chongyi] said. “It creates a perfect environment for manipulation and creating false evidence.” [Source]


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