October 3, 2023

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China Bars Diplomats from Australian Writer Yang Hengjun’s Espionage Trial

Chinese authorities denied Australian diplomats access to the trial of an Australian writer accused of espionage in a case that has exacerbated tensions between the two nations.

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.

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

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman
Zhao Lijian
said Thursday that Mr. Yang’s case was now under review and that a verdict would be pronounced at a future date.

Mr. Zhao defended the court’s decision to turn away the Australian diplomats, saying that cases involving state secrets were closed to the public. “It is reasonable and legitimate…because it involves national secrets,” Mr. Zhao said. “China firmly opposes Australia’s unjustifiable obstruction in China’s handling of the case in accordance with law, and its gross interference in China’s judicial sovereignty.”

A lawyer for Mr. Yang couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Mr. Yang’s trial is the latest proceeding in a string of high-profile detentions and prosecutions of foreign nationals in China. If convicted, Mr. Yang faces a lengthy prison sentence or the death penalty, some lawyers and analysts say. Australian officials say China hasn’t provided any evidence for the charges against Mr. Yang, who was detained in January 2019.

Mr. Yang has had no access to family and limited access to his lawyers, Australian Foreign Minister
Marise Payne
said last week. Mr. Fletcher said Thursday that Australian consular officials last met with Mr. Yang last month through video and that his health was fine.

Australia’s relationship with China has soured since Prime Minister Scott Morrison began calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which was first identified in China. Since then, China has imposed trade restrictions on Australian goods such as beef, barley and wine.

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.

Under President
Xi Jinping,
China has become sensitive about Chinese people abroad criticizing the government, which has taken on a more nationalistic tone in recent years, said John Lee, a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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.

“This is something which would offend him in a way that just wouldn’t offend the leaders of other countries,” said Mr. Lee, who was also a senior adviser to a previous foreign minister in Australia’s center-right government. Mr. Yang’s case is sure to reinforce the hardening of views toward China in countries such as the U.S. and Australia, Mr. Lee added.

Feng Chongyi, a friend of Mr. Yang’s and an academic in Sydney, said Mr. Yang continues to insist he has done nothing wrong despite efforts by Chinese authorities to extract a confession. Mr. Feng called the case against Mr. Yang an act of political persecution because of his writings and described the trial as a sham.

In a message delivered through consular officials in March, Mr. Yang said his health was suffering because of a lack of fresh air and sunshine. But he said that he is spiritually strong and still had a faint hope that he would be vindicated. If he gets out, he said in the message, he will write articles to improve relations between Australia and China, and help China and the rest of the world understand each other.

“There is nothing more liberating than having one’s worst fears realized,” Mr. Yang said in the message, which was confirmed as authentic by people close to the case. “I have no fear now. I will never compromise.”

Earlier this year, China charged Australian journalist Cheng Lei, an anchor for China’s state-run English-language television news channel, with sharing state secrets overseas. And in March, China tried two Canadians,
Michael Spavor
Michael Kovrig,
on espionage charges more than two years after detaining them. Verdicts haven’t been delivered in the Canadian cases.

The Canadians were taken into custody days after Canada detained
Meng Wanzhou,
the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co. She was wanted by the U.S. on fraud charges.

Write to Mike Cherney at m[email protected] and Jonathan Cheng at [email protected]

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