A Chinese-born Australian writer held in China since January has been formally arrested on suspicion of espionage, the Australian government said on Tuesday, amid growing tension between Canberra and its largest trading partner.
Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou while waiting for a transfer to Shanghai, after flying in from New York. He was later moved to the capital Beijing.
“Dr Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement, adding Yang was formally arrested on suspicion of spying last Friday.
Espionage is punishable by death in China.
The arrest of Yang, 53, whose legal name is Yang Jun, comes as Beijing struggles to contain anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
There was no immediate response from China’s Foreign Ministry. The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to requests for comment when contacted.
Yang’s wife, who is an Australian permanent resident, has also been barred from leaving China.
China has not allowed Yang access to his lawyers or family since his detention, Payne said. However, Australian embassy officials have visited Yang seven times since January, the government said.
Yang’s Australian lawyer, Robert Stary, said Yang faced one charge of espionage, which Yang intends to deny, and the basis of the charge was unknown.
“We know he’s a political activist in the sense that he’s a democracy activist and he’s a blogger and academic, but we don’t understand that there’s anything else alleged against him at this point,” Stary told Australian Broadcasting Corp television.
He said he wants the Australian government to press for Yang’s release if there is no other evidence against him other than the fact that he is a pro-democracy activist.
Stary has briefed a prominent Australian barrister, Julian McMahon, to represent Yang.
Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney, said the allegations against his friend were very serious.
“It is absolutely outrageous they can provide no evidence for these politically motivated charges,” Feng told Reuters.
Although Yang’s recent writing has mostly avoided Chinese politics, he became prominent in the early 2000s when he earned the nickname “democracy peddler”.