Melbourne, Australia – Sino-Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is expected to stand trial in China on Thursday, accused of espionage and accused of spying on the Australian government.
In a letter written in March and published on the eve of the trial, Yang was Stoic.
“There is nothing more liberating than considering the worst fears,” he wrote in the letter, published in the Australian media. “I am not afraid now. I will never compromise.
“The values and beliefs we shared, and that I shared with my readers, are something bigger than me.”
He was a 56-year-old pro-democracy writer, blogger and activist arrested in January 2019 when he arrived at Guangzhou airport with his wife and faces a possible death sentence if he is found guilty of having “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people.” The minimum sentence is three years.
The accusation of acting as an Australian spy has long been denied by the Australian government, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the claim in 2019 “absolutely false”. Canberra has described Yang’s unacceptable arrest.
According to Amnesty International, Yang may have faced up to 300 interrogations during his time in prison so far.
These interrogations, says Feng Chongyi, a friend and colleague, are designed to “extract a confession” and “fabricate a case against him.”
Feng, a Sydney-based Australian resident and self-confessed “liberal Chinese”, was himself detained by the Chinese government for a week in 2017 after an academic visit.
“My arrest was similar to Yang’s, to try to establish an espionage case,” Feng told Al Jazeera. “But I was very lucky to escape Yang’s fate.”
Feng says he and other liberals like Yang seek to “promote the rule of law, human rights and democratization.”
“And, of course, in doing so, we criticize the current dictatorship of a party and analyze Chinese society, especially the state-society relationship.”
State security official to activist, novelist
Feng has known Yang since 2005 as “a friend and colleague,” calling him “idealistic and aspirational.”
Feng confirmed that Yang worked at the State Security Ministry (MSS) for 14 years in what he said was “a provincial level.”
But, according to Feng, Yang was frustrated with his work with the MSS and began writing spy novels to “escape from that profession he no longer believed in. [in] or I had some enthusiasm for ”.
These novels were based on Yang’s own experiences in the ministry, and although they were not published in book form in China, they were published on the Internet under a pseudonym.
Yang and Feng initially connected online. The first moved to Australia in 2000 and began studying with Feng at Sydney University of Technology five years later.
In particular, Feng says, Yang would study “the likely effect of the Internet on the Chinese communist government. Thus, in doing so, he became a liberal.”
After Yang’s graduation, the two worked together on many joint publications, published books, and organized lectures on Chinese liberalism and democracy.
Feng says Yang’s father, a teacher and professor, “had been prosecuted by the regime.” [and] I never had a good relationship or opinion on the communist dictatorship ”.
As such, he believes it may have been this influence, along with Feng’s tutelage, that transformed Yang from a provincial government agent to a pro-democracy activist.
Yang’s status as an Australian citizen has made his arrest and forthcoming trial an international diplomatic problem.
In a recent statement to the media, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that “despite repeated requests from Australian officials, Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence of the charges facing Dr Yang.”
“Since his arrest, Dr. Yang has not had access to his family and has restricted access to his legal representation.”
The statement is also concerned that the trial is a closed-door matter, with no Australian officials present.
Diplomats were banned in court when Canadians Michael Kovrig i Michael Spavor, who were arrested the month before Yang and allowed only limited consular contact, were tried on espionage charges in March. Both men are awaiting verdicts. Chinese courts convict 99 percent of defendants.
“We have conveyed to the Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have about Dr. Yang’s treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in the way his case has been handled,” Payne said.
“As a basic rule of justice, access to trial for observers must be kept to a minimum to comply with international standards of transparency.”
Australian-based Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Yang’s trial would take place under Chinese law.
“China’s judicial bodies handle cases in accordance with the law and fully protect the rights and legal interests of relevant personnel,” Zhao told Al Jazeera when asked about the case. “As for the specific situation you mentioned, I have no information to offer you at this time.”
Loose diplomatic ties
Australia maintains close trade relations with China, but relations have been eroded by Australia’s request to investigate on the ground the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan, where the first cases of the disease first arose in end of 2019.
There is also growing concern about human rights abuses against Uighurs, which has included the arrest of family members of ethnic Uighurs who are Australian citizens.
China has recently accused Uyghur Australians of “terrorism” and last month Cheng Jingye, the Chinese ambassador to Canberra, held a press conference in which he called the “false allegations” of allegations of human rights abuses against the Uighurs.
Yang is also not the only Australian to remain in China. Cheng Lei, a high-profile business anchor for CGTN, a state-run television channel, disappeared in August last year. The following month she was accused of endangering national security.
The arrests have attracted the attention of human rights organizations worldwide.
Amnesty International’s Chinese team leader Joshua Rosenzweig said this week that “the charges against Yang seem like a politically motivated prosecution for articles he wrote that were critical of the Chinese government. It is a scandalous attack on their right to freedom of expression. “
Rosenzweig added: “Yang’s case is further evidence that incommunicado detention, coercive interrogations, secret hearings and the blatant denial of fair trial warranties for nebulous charges are part of the Chinese authorities’ routine repertoire to address to government critics and human rights activists.
“Unless China can provide concrete, credible and admissible evidence that Yang has committed an internationally recognized crime, it must be released immediately with all charges dropped.”
However, his partner and friend have little hope. Feng believes the trial will not end, allowing authorities to detain him indefinitely.
“The party’s current environment and determination to punish Yang means they will give him a very harsh sentence,” he told Al Jazeera.
“This is a flagrant violation of human rights. I must also call on the international community and the Australian government to save Yang and also to uphold the basic values of human rights. “
“Yang is my best friend. I have an obligation to rescue him, to return him to Australia. “