Australian Writer’s Case Highlights Risks Foreigners Face in China

Taipei, Taiwan — Chinese-born Australian writer and businessman Yang Hengjun’s recent suspended death sentence on espionage charges is likely to add to growing concerns about the risks foreign nationals face living in, working in and visiting China, analysts say.

Yang, a democracy advocate and spy novelist, was sentenced earlier this month. On Wednesday, his family released a statement saying that they would not file an appeal to the ruling due to a lack of trust in China’s judicial system and the hope of securing “adequate and supervised medical care” for him.

“Yang’s decision to forgo the appeals process does not in any way change the fact that he is both innocent and morally unbreakable, [and] we, family and close friends, strongly support Yang’s decision to waive his legal right to appeal the suspended death sentence handed down to him,” they wrote in the statement.

Feng Chongyi, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Technology Sydney and Yang’s former academic adviser, told VOA in a phone interview that the case will have ripple effects.

“The Chinese government’s decision to give Yang Hengjun a suspended death sentence will create a chilling effect among democratic countries and discourage foreign nationals from doing business in China,” Feng said.

He added that under China’s anti-espionage law, which was amended in July 2023 to give Chinese authorities more power to punish threats against national security, the Chinese government categorizes commercial information and news as “state secrets,” and that any foreigner could be treated as a spy under the law.  

What led to Yang’s detention and the espionage charges remains unclear.

Some observers say Yang, who previously worked for the Chinese government and is a novelist who maintained a blog on China affairs, is a prominent liberal intellectual in China.

“He called himself the ‘democracy peddler’ and has played a positive role in facilitating the spread of ideas related to liberal democracy and constitutionalism in China,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and the Pozen Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, told VOA by phone.

Feng in Sydney said he believes Beijing views Yang as a “political opponent” who poses a “serious threat to the Chinese government’s rule over China and regime security.”

“They want to make an example out of Yang by imposing a heavy sentence on him,” he told VOA, adding that Beijing hopes to suppress dissent in civil society and the communist party through Yang’s case.

China has dismissed criticism of the ruling, reiterating that China is a country that upholds the rule of law.

“Chinese judicial authorities handle the case in accordance with the law and will continue to protect the lawful rights and interests of the person concerned in accordance with the law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said during the regular press conference on Wednesday.

Despite Beijing’s assurances, Teng Biao said Yang’s case is raising awareness of the risks foreign nationals face, particularly among the Chinese diaspora community.

“While many overseas Chinese dissidents, including those with foreign nationalities, already try not to go back to China, some of them are now also avoiding passing through some countries neighboring China, such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Nepal, due to concerns of being abruptly abducted back to China,” he said.

Japan and the United States have reported cases of citizens being detained under suspicion of espionage in China after amendments to China’s anti-espionage law came into force last July.

Since 2015, the year that China first introduced the anti-espionage law, a total of 17 Japanese citizens have been detained in China, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. On the U.S. side, at least three American citizens are currently “wrongfully detained” in China, according to information shared by the U.S. State Department last November.

Some analysts say as China continues to “securitize” the country in the name of safeguarding national security, the severity of Yang’s prison sentence reflects both the increasingly arbitrary nature of China’s judicial system and the growing prices that foreign nationals may have to pay for overstepping the red line.

With no clear definition of what constitutes a violation of national security in China, “no one can predict the potential risks that they may face when they do anything,” Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Taiwan and Hong Kong at Freedom House, told VOA by phone.

While the bilateral relationship between Australia and China has improved in recent months, Feng said Yang’s case now puts Canberra in a tough position. “When the Australian government deals with China, it must prioritize Yang’s case,” he told VOA.

“Canberra should pressure China about the case on different occasions and ask Beijing to make concessions in order to allow bilateral economic and trade relations to return to normalcy,” Feng said.

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