Australian academic Yang Hengjun given suspended death sentence by Chinese court

Detention of pro-democracy blogger and sentencing of women’s rights activist Li Qiaochu have increased tensions between Australian government and Beijing

The Australian academic Yang Hengjun has been given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court, after five years in detention on espionage charges. His sentence came on the same day that the women’s rights activist Li Qiaochu was sentenced to three years and eight months by a court in Shandong for “inciting subversion of state power”.

Dr Yang was arrested in 2019 at Guangzhou airport, accused of spying for an undisclosed foreign country. The 57-year-old pro-democracy blogger is an Australian citizen who was born in China. He was tried in a one-day, closed-door hearing in Beijing in May 2021, with a verdict not publicly disclosed.

Dr Yang’s family was shocked and devastated by the court’s decision, with a spokesperson describing it as being at the “extreme end of worst expectations”.

Penny Wong, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, said on Monday the government was “appalled by this decision”, and said it had called in the Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian to lodge Canberra’s objection “in the strongest terms”.


Ms Wong said the Australian government had advocated for Dr Yang “at every opportunity and at the highest levels”.

“Australia will not relent in our advocacy for justice for Dr Yang’s interests and wellbeing,” Ms Wong said. “All Australians want to see Dr Yang reunited with his family.”

The sentence revealed on Monday is formally described as a death sentence with a two-year reprieve. It is a relatively common ruling that allows death sentences to be commuted to 25 years, or life in prison after two years of good behaviour. China is believed to be the world’s biggest user of the death penalty, but there is no publicly available data. China’s court system is notoriously opaque, with conviction rates above 99.9 per cent and very few cases overturned for wrongful convictions.

Associate professor Chongyi Feng, Dr Yang’s PhD supervisor in Australia and advocate for his case, said Dr Yang’s sentence would be converted to life in prison. He called his former student’s sentence an “outrageous political persecution”.

“Dr Yang did not commit any crime of espionage. He is [being] punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

Commenting on Ms Li’s sentence, Amnesty International’s China director, Sarah Brooks, said: “Li has been ruthlessly targeted for expressing views the Chinese authorities would prefer to suppress – on the premise that her speech could somehow topple the government. Her conviction highlights the grave dangers of peacefully advocating for human rights in Xi Jinping’s China.”

Ms Li is also the partner of the jailed human rights scholar Xu Zhiyong, who is one of the leading figures of China’s embattled human rights movement. She was first taken into custody in December 2019 and has been in detention since February 16th, 2020. Ms Li, who is expected to be released in August, has said she plans to appeal Monday’s sentence.

Ms Wong told media there were still avenues of appeal; however, Prof Feng said Dr Yang was already struggling with poor health. “Five years of arbitrary detention and torture have taken a heavy toll on his health. He is now critically ill.”

Prof Feng urged Australia to press for Dr Yang’s return to Australia immediately, potentially on medical parole, so he could access treatment.

Dr Yang’s detention in China has been a key point of friction between the Chinese and Australian governments. Last year, another Australian, the journalist Cheng Lei, was released after three years in jail also on national security charges. Her release was widely believed to be the result of Australian lobbying amid attempts by both governments to repair ties and reset the bilateral relationship, but efforts to secure Dr Yang’s release were proving more complicated, according to sources familiar with the cases.

Despite Ms Wong’s condemnation of the verdict, the minister played down its potential broader impact on the Australia-China relationship, by noting the decision was made “within China’s legal system”.

“I have said stabilisation means we co-operate where we can, disagree where we must, and we engage in the national interest. Clearly this is an occasion in which we disagree. However, Australia will continue to advocate for the interests of Dr Yang.”

In November, Dr Yang’s sons wrote to Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese before his visit to China, pleading with him to negotiate their father’s release.

“We request that you do all in your power to save our father’s life and return him immediately to family and freedom in Australia,” they wrote. “We know our father has done nothing wrong.

“They subjected him to more than 300 interrogations, over 18 months, including six months of intense torture ... they deprived him of sleep, strapped his wrists and ankles and pinned him to a chair for days at a time, until he couldn’t walk.

“But still there has been no confession ... He is in jail because he represents truth, democracy, respectful exchange of rational ideas.”

Australia’s shadow foreign minister Simon Birmingham said the sentence was “a reminder of the risks that apply in doing business or engaging with China” and encouraged the government to maintain the “maximum appropriate pressure” on Beijing to secure Dr Yang’s release.

Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, Daniela Gavshon, said Dr Yang’s sentence was “catastrophic”.

“After years of arbitrary detention, allegations of torture, a closed and unfair trial without access to his own choice of lawyers – a sentence as severe as this is alarming,” Ms Gavshon said.

The organisation called on Canberra to form a “coalition” with the governments of other people arbitrarily detained in China to lobby for the rule of law to be complied with and for the release of those wrongfully detained.

– Additional reporting by Amy Hawkins