China to Try Australian on Spy Charge, Adding to Diplomatic Tensions

The businessman-writer Yang Hengjun will face trial in Beijing next week, at a time when Australia and China have fallen out over detentions, accusations of political interference and the investigation of journalists.

SYDNEY, Australia — An Australian writer and businessman is scheduled to face trial in Beijing next week on a charge of espionage, bringing to the fore one of the disputes that have sent relations between China and Australia tumbling into icy antagonism.

The trial of the businessman, Yang Hengjun, is set to take place on Thursday, more than two years after he was detained in China in early 2019, the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a statement.

“Despite repeated requests by Australian officials, Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr. Yang,” Ms. Payne said in the statement issued on Friday. “We have conveyed to Chinese authorities, in clear terms, the concerns we have about Dr. Yang’s treatment and the lack of procedural fairness in how his case has been managed.”

Despite the Australian government’s request to send diplomats to observe the hearing, Mr. Yang is likely to be tried in secret, said Feng Chongyi, a professor in Sydney, who is Mr. Yang’s friend and former academic adviser. He said Mr. Yang’s family, who were notified of the court date by the Chinese authorities, were told the trial would be held in Beijing.

“They’ll cite national security concerns to restrict access,” Professor Feng said. “It’s not giving the lawyers much time to apply to see him or prepare.”

Given how rarely Chinese courts find defendants not guilty, Mr. Yang, 56, who was born in China, is almost sure to be found guilty and sentenced. He has rejected the charge as false. Mr. Yang’s lawyers did not answer calls.

“I am innocent and will fight to the end,” Mr. Yang said in a message in September from his detention center in Beijing that was passed to his family and supporters, including Professor Feng, who confirmed receiving it. “I will never confess to something I haven’t done,” Mr. Yang added.

He is one of four high-profile detainees in China whose treatment has intensified tensions between Beijing and Western nations. Their supporters and human rights experts have accused China of using them as pawns in diplomatic disputes.

Australia’s economic fortunes remain closely tied to China, with its appetite for the country’s iron ore, farm products and other resources.
Vincent Du/Reuters

Two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — are in detention awaiting court judgments after they stood trial in March on suspicion of spying. Their supporters and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, have said their arrests in 2018 were retaliation for the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive, who faces extradition to the United States on bank fraud charges related to deals with Iran.

In August, Chinese investigators detained Cheng Lei, an Australian national born in China, who was working as an anchor for China’s international television network. The Chinese foreign ministry later said Ms. Cheng was suspected of national security crimes, a nebulous set of offenses that can include espionage, illegally obtaining or supplying state secrets, or subverting Communist Party power.

Mr. Yang faces trial at a time when Australia’s relations with China are at a low. Australia’s economic fortunes remain closely tied to China, with its appetite for the country’s iron ore, farm products and other resources. But public opinion survey results released by the Pew Research Center in October showed that unfavorable views of China had jumped in Australia, even more than in the United States and other Western nations.

The share of Australian respondents with negative views of China grew by 24 percentage points in 2020 compared with a year before, with 81 percent saying they now saw China unfavorably.

Beijing has accused the Australian government of stoking baseless alarm about Chinese interference in Australian politics; China said in September that Australian security and police forces had several months earlier raided the homes of four Chinese journalists in Australia.

Mr. Yang flew to Guangzhou in southern China from New York in early 2019, shrugging off warnings from friends that China’s increasingly frigid political environment put him at risk of arrest. He was detained soon after arriving, and his case became entwined with the souring ties between China and Australia, his adopted homeland.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, via Reuters

The Australian government has rejected suggestions that Mr. Yang was one of its agents. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last year that “these suggestions that he’s acted as a spy for Australia are absolutely untrue.” Asked recently about Mr. Yang’s impending trial, Mr. Morrison said, “There should be a fair and just process,” Reuters reported.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected suggestions that Mr. Yang has been abused in detention. “There’s no such ‘torment’ or ‘abuse,’” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the ministry, said during a regular news briefing in Beijing last year.

Diplomatic entreaties from Australia seem unlikely to spare Mr. Yang conviction and a possible prison term.

He shuttled for years among China, Australia and the United States, juggling roles as a businessman and an online commentator. Mr. Yang obtained Australian citizenship about 20 years ago, and was briefly detained in China in 2011, though he later said that had been a “misunderstanding.”

While chiding the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian policies and urging political relaxation in China, Mr. Yang did not outright challenge the party publicly and continued to cultivate a large online readership through his blog and social media posts in China. He often called for more space for public debate.

“China and the Chinese government need to have critics,” he wrote in 2015. “A country that doesn’t have any contrary voices — no matter how special it is — can never be much stronger than North Korea.”