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Amid rising tensions between Beijing and Canberra, the fate of Australian academic and writer Yang Hengjun, imprisoned in China on espionage charges, hangs in the balance. By Linda Jaivin.

The case of Yang Hengjun

Imprisoned academic and writer Yang Hengjun (left) with his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, in Beijing in 2017.
Credit: AP

“I heard you’re a spy. Well, are you?”

The question, asked “half-jokingly”, was the first thing Chinese–American writer Zha Jianying said to Yang Hengjun when she met him in New York in 2017. They were taking part in a seminar on Chinese liberalism at Columbia University, where Yang was a visiting scholar. It was well known that Yang had worked for China’s secretive Ministry of State Security (MSS) before becoming an academic, influential political commentator and best-selling author of espionage thrillers. Zha recalls that Yang laughed awkwardly “and said something like: ‘Well, that’s my reputation…’ and then he changed the subject”.

On January 19, 2019, Yang flew into Guangzhou from New York on his Australian passport. As he was making his way with his wife and stepdaughter to their connecting flight to Shanghai, agents of his old employer, the MSS, took him away. Today, Yang Hengjun, 55, sits in a Chinese prison, awaiting trial, charged with espionage and endangering national security. If some within the overseas democracy movement had wondered if he was spying for the People’s Republic of China, Beijing seems to believe he served another master.

Chinese authorities waited seven months before announcing his arrest. They laid charges in March this year, turning the case over to the People’s Procuratorate, which investigates and prosecutes criminal cases and boasts a conviction rate of 99.9 per cent. Under China’s criminal code, conviction for espionage carries a mandatory sentence of between 10 years and life or, in cases of “grave harm to the state and the people”, the death penalty. Yang’s trial is expected to take place within the next few months.

Australian consular officials were able to see Yang for half an hour each month through to December 30, 2019. According to a source with access to consular reports, in that first year in detention, Yang was subjected to wrist and ankle shackling, long interrogations, continuous exposure to light, and other physical and psychological abuses, including being made to swallow unidentified medications. Within six months of detention, Yang – who was previously in good health – suffered from hypertension, kidney problems, tinnitus and memory loss. He had difficulty walking and appeared malnourished.

In January this year, Chinese authorities cut off the consular visits, citing concerns about Covid-19. “In the absence of broader consular visits, we have repeatedly requested to speak to Dr Yang by telephone,” a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said. “To date, this has not occurred.”

Yang’s wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, a Chinese citizen and Australian resident, hasn’t seen him since his arrest and she isn’t allowed to leave China.

While there is never a good time to be in a Chinese prison on charges of espionage, this is, for an Australian citizen, one of the worst. Relations between the two countries are more tense today than they’ve been at any other time since the normalisation of relations in 1972.

The foreign interference laws passed in 2018 and the ban on Huawei operating 5G networks in Australia infuriated Beijing. Then came the Morrison government’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of Covid-19, followed by accusations over a new wave of cyber attacks, indications that Australia will welcome Hong Kong refugees, and the recent shift in defence policy that implicitly frames China as a potential military threat.

Tariffs on Australian barley were among the first signals of Beijing’s ability and willingness to punish Australia for displeasing it. Last month, a Chinese court handed down a death sentence to Australian Karm Gilespie on charges of drug smuggling – almost seven years after his arrest and five years after his trial.

This week, the Australian government warned Australians of the risk of arbitrary detention if they travel to China, upgrading its travel advice. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry responded that Australians have no need for concern, “as long as they abide by laws and regulations”.

Yang, who has maintained his innocence, indicated to consular officials that his interrogators appeared to be fishing for something to pin on him. Initially, the questioning focused on his time in the United States, later turning to Australia. In August last year, when he learnt that the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption was investigating political donations by billionaire investor Huang Xiangmo, who’d earlier been rejected for Australian citizenship, Yang reportedly smiled and said, “Maybe that is my problem.”

 

A native of Hubei province and a graduate of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, Yang spent 19 years working for the MSS – officially for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – before quitting and moving to Australia to further his studies and become a writer. He gained Australian citizenship in 2002.

His first spy novel, Fatal Weakness, published in 2004, concerned a plot to sabotage the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His espionage fiction was so popular in China that one observer remarked of his arrest that “it’s like the Brits locked up le Carré”.

Yang blogged prolifically across a number of platforms, garnering something in the region of 10 million followers. Although he called himself a “democracy pedlar”, he was more liberal than firebrand, and his essays were published by mainland presses. He travelled frequently between Australia and China, reportedly networking with high-level officials as well as academics, fans and followers.

On a visit to the PRC in 2011, he was apprehended by the Public Security Bureau (PSB), which, unlike the MSS, has a purely domestic remit. At the time, Chinese pro-democracy activists, inspired by uprisings across the Middle East, were calling for China to have its own “Jasmine Revolution”. The PSB, which had launched a crackdown on dissenters, released him after a few days.

The experience left him shaken. After returning to Australia, he wrote a letter of 20-odd pages and entrusted it to his doctoral supervisor and close friend, Professor Feng Chongyi at the University of Technology Sydney. Feng says the letter “contains very sensitive information”. Feng has never revealed the full contents of the letter to anyone – but says he may do so, depending on the outcome of Yang’s trial.

 

Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has clamped down steadily on the expression of even mild dissent. In 2016, Yang began to tone down his criticisms of the Communist Party and the following year took up the invitation from political science professor Andrew Nathan to go to Columbia University to work with him on a project studying China’s middle class.

On a visit back to Sydney in 2018, Yang was on his way to meet his friend John Garnaut, a former China correspondent and the author, together with ASIO, of the confidential report behind the foreign interference laws, when his phone rang. The caller identified himself as a Chinese official. He knew about the meeting and insisted on seeing Yang first. Yang was an hour late to their appointment. When told why, Garnaut warned Yang that it would be dangerous for him to return to China.

Feng agreed. By travelling to China at the start of 2019, he says, Yang “ran into the barrel of a gun”. Even before Covid-19, the year was widely forecast to be politically fraught, not least because it was littered with sensitive anniversaries, including that of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Authorities had already started rounding up activists and others they believed might cause trouble.

Compounding tensions was the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities at Vancouver airport on December 1, 2018, following an extradition request by the US. Less than two weeks later, the MSS detained two Canadians living in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Their case has progressed in line with Meng’s: last month, three weeks after a Canadian court ruled that Meng could be extradited to the US, Chinese authorities charged both men with espionage.

Feng strongly believes Yang’s case is also tied to the politics around Huawei, even if the potential quid pro quo is less clear than in the case of the Canadians.

Last year, Yang’s interrogators reportedly taunted him by saying Australia was too dependent on China and too racist to care about a non-white citizen like him. He retorted that this was “nonsense”. Yang’s friends and supporters highly praise Foreign Minister Marise Payne both for her steadfast efforts advocating on his behalf, and for her insistence on the importance of human rights to international relations more generally. Beijing, for its part, has labelled Payne’s interventions “deplorable”, an interference with Chinese justice.

Zha Jianying recalls Yang telling her at Columbia that Chinese liberals “shouldn’t be so pessimistic” about the future. Yet as Feng remarks, “In the Xi Jinping era, there is no longer a baseline.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Spy hooks".

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Linda Jaivin
is the author of 11 books and a translator of Chinese films.

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