China charges Australian writer with espionage

Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian dissident and former diplomat, with his wife Yuan Xiaoliang  - Chongyi Feng
Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian dissident and former diplomat, with his wife Yuan Xiaoliang - Chongyi Feng

A Chinese-Australian writer could face the death penalty or a long jail term after China confirmed he had been arrested on suspicion of spying.

Yang Hengjun, a 54-year old Sydney-based academic, has been held without charge after flying into Guangzhou from New York with his wife and child in January.

He has been under investigation after being accused of harming China's national security, but Australian officials have been told he is now suspected of espionage.

It is understood the former Chinese diplomat was held at a residential surveillance centre in southern Beijing before being transferred a state security prison.

Australia has traditionally been keen to avoid friction with Beijing, but Yang's arrest will increase public pressure on Canberra to take a tougher line against its most important trade partner.

“We have serious concerns for Dr Yang's welfare, and about the conditions under which he is being been held. We have expressed these in clear terms to the Chinese authorities," foreign minister Marise Payne said.

"I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.”

Analysts fear the author, who has been an outspoken critic of Chinese authorities, could be punished as a warning to other pro-democracy agitators.

Alex Joske, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, urged Britain and other western powers to intervene on his behalf. “Countries like the UK, Canada, the US all have a stake in this. They all have a duty to try to protect the rights of who are being oppressed by totalitarian states and trying to make sure that the rule of law is being upheld,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Dr Yang's wife Yuan Xiaoliang has been granted permanent residency by Australia, but China has stopped her leaving the country.

Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a friend of Dr Yang, said Beijing was trying to pressure Canberra over its ban on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei participating in Australia’s new 5G mobile network.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman insisted the writer was being processed in accordance with the law, and in a broadside to Canberra,  said Beijing was strongly dissatisfied with Australia's comments on his detention and called on it not interfere in the case.