Closed-door trial for Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun on vague espionage charges

Domestic News

It is not clear exactly why the Chinese government is accusing the writer Yang Hengjun of espionage, and we probably won’t learn much more from his trial next week.

Yang Hengjun
Illustration by Derek Zheng.

In January 2019, Yáng Héngjūn 杨恒均, a writer and former Chinese diplomat with Australian citizenship, was detained without explanation by the Chinese authorities. In August 2019, he was charged with espionage. Today, the Australian Foreign Ministry announced that it had “been notified by Chinese authorities that Yang…will face trial on May 27, 2021.”

“Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang,” says the statement, despite “repeated requests by Australian officials.”

  • “Yang has had no access to his family, and limited, delayed access to his legal representation,” according to the statement.
  • Féng Chóngyì 冯崇义, “a professor in Sydney, who is Mr. Yang’s friend and former academic adviser…said Mr. Yang’s family, who were notified of the court date by the Chinese authorities, were told the trial would be held in Beijing,” reports the New York Times.
  • Yang’s trial will almost certainly be conducted in secret.
  • Australian ABC TV has more analysis and background, via Youtube.

In 2017, Feng Chongyi was himself detained for unstated reasons for a few days by Chinese agents.

  • Feng’s and Yang’s cases also call to mind the detention in 2009 and jailing until 2018, under murky circumstances, of Australian citizen and Rio Tinto employee Stern Hu (胡士泰 Hú Shìtài) for “stealing commercial secrets and receiving bribes.”

Yang “is one of four high-profile detainees in China whose treatment has intensified tensions between Beijing and Western nations,” says the New York Times. The other three are:

  • Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are awaiting court judgments on charges of spying after being detained in December 2018 apparently in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 a few days earlier.
  • Australian citizen Chéng Lěi 成蕾, who was host of a business show on CGTN — the international arm of central state broadcaster CCTV — since 2012. But she was detained in August 2020 without charges. The Chinese Foreign Ministry later said she was suspected of “national security crimes.”

Who is Yang Hengjun?

Yang first became famous online in China in the mid-2000s (see 2008 video interview) when he wrote blog posts about Chinese politics and spy fiction that showed familiarity with the inner workings of China’s government and security services.

  • Yang says he is a graduate of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University and previously worked for China’s Foreign Ministry. But in a 2019 report, Reuters was not able to verify either of those claims.
  • Reuters says Yang “has long been a divisive figure among overseas Chinese dissidents and activists.”

What is Beijing’s endgame?

For all the word games played by Beijing, Ottawa, and Washington, it is crystal clear what China wants from its detention of the two Canadians: the release and exoneration of Meng Wanzhou.

But there is something murkier and more difficult to understand with the detention of Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei. Or is there? Perhaps they are just unlucky enough to be expendable Australian citizens at a time of rapidly deteriorating relations between Canberra and Beijing.