As the world awaits Peng Shuai’s next post, Australian writer in China remains in limbo

An Australian citizen accused of spying in China still does not know the outcome of his trial months after the proceedings.

Writer and scholar Dr Yang Hengjun has been detained since 2019 after his arrest at an airport. He was tried in May on charges carrying a sentence of three years to the death penalty. Chinese authorities have not disclosed any specific details about the charges against Dr Yang.

The verdict was delayed as Amnesty International Australia said it understood the hearing had been postponed until January.

“He has been held since 2019 on completely unfounded allegations that he is a spy, charges that appear to be politically motivated by articles he wrote that criticized the Chinese government. This is a scandalous attack on his right to freedom of expression, ”said Nikita White, activist for Amnesty International Australia.

One of his supporters, Dr. Feng Chongyi, a Chinese studies scholar at UTS, said that Dr. Yang suffered torture and lengthy interrogation during his detention, especially during the first six months of his life. his arrest.

“But he still has a good mood to fight this political persecution,” he said.

Dr Feng was detained for a week in China in 2017. Although subjected to lengthy interrogations, Dr Feng says he did not endure the extensive sleep deprivation that he believes Dr Yang suffered.

Dr Yang has two sons in Australia and a wife in Shanghai, who has permanent residence in Australia. Dr. Yang graduated from university in China in 1987 and worked for the Chinese Communist Party’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He resigned and moved to Australia to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, where he published a trilogy of spy novels based on his experiences and those of his former colleagues. Novels have been banned in mainland China.

The 54-year-old earned a doctorate from Sydney University of Technology under the supervision of Dr Feng, who explored the tension between the CCP regime and the internet. He pursued a pro-democracy Chinese-language online blog. Dr Yang was detained in China in March 2011, but was quickly released to Australia after intentional and diplomatic pressure. Despite his arrest, Dr. Yang continued to write, softening his tone and increasing a large Chinese audience. In 2016, his blogs were closed.

Yang Hengjun and his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang.


In 2018, after moving to New York as a visiting scholar, Chinese authorities lifted the ban on his blogging and he felt safe traveling the country. He was detained on his arrival.

In May, Foreign Minister Marise Payne underscored the Australian government’s concern for Dr Yang’s well-being.

“We have expressed to the Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have regarding Dr Yang’s treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in the way his case has been handled,” she said in a statement. communicated.

The Chinese government has rejected allegations that the writer was tortured.

“There is no arbitrary detention or forced confession with torture on Yang Jun,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said in June, referring to Dr. Yang by the name used by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia has been contacted for comment.

Judicial independence, the “disappeared” and hostage diplomacy

In early November, tennis player Peng Shuai posted a sexual assault charge against former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on heavily censored Chinese social media. The post remained in place for a short time, but once it gained international attention, threatening the reputation of the Communist Party, it was abolished. Soon after, Peng could not be contacted.

“The information was gathered by the international community and triggered the involvement of the international #metoo movement. It became an event and had the potential to damage the image of the Communist Party and (Chinese President Xi) Jinping as a whole, ”says Dr Feng.

The response to the international concern came first through the publication of a message in Chinese state media, then photos and, more recently, an interview with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. However, widespread skepticism about the freedom and safety of the tennis player remains.

Peng’s disappearance followed a pattern of other prominent Chinese figures “disappearing” from the public eye for angering the Party leaders. This includes actress Zhao Wei (who has been seen on Chinese streets) and Alibaba businessman and founder Jack Ma (he has been seen in Hong Kong and Spain).

Dr Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, said a key problem affecting people like Dr Yang is the continued subjugation of the Chinese judicial system to politics.

China opened its doors to the world in 1978, and the following year began to restore its justice system. Dr Hsu said that although China has made efforts to separate the judiciary from government, it is a system that has only been established for forty years.

“So there are still a lot of problems, as we can see. “

Peng has disappeared from public view following her social media allegation that a former senior Chinese official forced her to have sex.

IOC President Thomas Bach holds a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.


This year, the Chinese Communist Party unveiled plans to overhaul the legal system to build confidence in the courts. Although judicial independence is enshrined in the country’s constitution, in practice the courts ultimately answer to party leadership. State party leaders and judges have reportedly warned against a Western law model, including President Xi calling last year for a coordinated rule of law approach to protect China’s interests.

“[We] need to strengthen our mindset regarding the rule of law, [learn how to] apply it like this [we] can effectively manage our challenges and guard against risks, ”he said, according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

The organizers of the China Open on Saturday night posted photos of Peng Shuai at a restaurant in downtown Beijing.

The organizers of the China Open on Saturday night posted photos of Peng Shuai at a restaurant in downtown Beijing.

WeChat / China Open

Dr Hsu said China uses foreign citizens as negotiating tools or chips, showing that the justice system is not separate from the political process.

A recent example of China’s willingness to engage in “hostage diplomacy” is the case of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovri, two Canadian consultants, who were jailed two months after Dr. Yang.

They were released after three years when the leader of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, arrested under a US warrant in 2018, left Canada under a deal with US prosecutors.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been detained since August 2020 with officials saying they suspected she was carrying out criminal activity endangering China’s national security. His detention coincided with a deterioration in relations between China and Australia.

Dr Hsu explains that even though the lawsuits against Cheng Lei and Dr Yang are different, it indicates a breakdown in relations between the two countries.

“I think the detention of the two Australians suggests that there is currently no reciprocal goodwill between the two countries,” she said.

“There has been no high-level engagement between Beijing and Canberra, which indicates that the state of bilateral relations is at a critical stage and requires some sort of engagement, at least for these two people who are being held. “

SBS Dateline has contacted the Foreign Office for comment, but has not received a response at the time of publication.

As the world waits to learn more about Peng Shuai, Dr. Yang and his supporters anxiously await the outcome of his trial.

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