An Australian writer and businessman who has been detained in China since 2019 has been declared guilty of espionage and was given a death sentence with two years’ probation on Monday, in a blow to warming relations between Australia and China.
The severe punishment for the businessman, Yang Hengjun, was first revealed by the Australian government, and then confirmed by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a daily briefing in Beijing. If Mr. Yang does not commit any crimes in those probationary two years, the sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment, Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, said in a statement. She described the verdict as “harrowing.”
The long detention of Mr. Yang — who is also known by his legal name, Yang Jun — has been one of the sources of tensions between Australia and China. Now the severe sentence may again weigh on relations, which had been improving after the election of a new, center-left Labor government in Australia in 2022. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, visited Beijing late last year and has pressed for Mr. Yang’s release.
“The Australian government will be communicating our response in the strongest terms,” Ms. Wong said, adding: “We have consistently called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment for Dr. Yang, in accordance with international norms and China’s legal obligations.” She said she had directed officials to call in Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia.
Mr. Yang, 58, was born in China and became an Australian citizen in 2000, completing a dissertation there that focused on the internet and democratization in China. Mr. Yang described himself as a former employee of the Chinese foreign ministry, and also wrote a trilogy of novels about China’s espionage apparatus. He had been critical of human rights abuses under the Chinese government, but became more cautious in his public comments in the years before his detention, when dissent in China came under tighter control.
He vanished in early 2019, shortly after arriving in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou from New York, where he had been a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He was detained for more than two years before he underwent a closed-door trial in May 2021, according to Ms. Wong’s statement. The final verdict and sentence had been subject to repeated delays.
The charges of espionage that Mr. Yang faced were “fabricated,” his friend Feng Chongyi, a professor at University of Technology Sydney who was himself detained by the Chinese authorities in 2017, said in an email.
“This is a serious case of injustice, but Dr. Yang won’t be able to appeal due to poor health,” he said. “Five years of arbitrary detention and torture have taken a heavy toll on his health. He is now critically ill. The top priority for Dr. Yang is to receive proper medical treatment on medical parole immediately.”
Mr. Yang told supporters last year that a large cyst had developed in his kidney that he feared would kill him in prison without adequate treatment.
“The entire prosecution, which lasted for five years, was shrouded in secrecy and ridden with allegations of torture and ill treatment,” Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China for Freedom House, an advocacy group critical of the Chinese government’s record on human rights, said in a written response to questions. “Beijing’s complete disregard for international human rights laws and norms is now extended to citizens of other countries.”
In a September 2020 message that was passed to his family and supporters from a detention center in Beijing, Mr. Yang proclaimed his innocence and swore to fight to the end. “I will never confess to something I haven’t done,” he said.
The verdict comes as once-icy relations between Australia and China showed signs of thawing: The two nations have for months made moves toward rapprochement, starting with the change in the Australian government. That was followed by meetings between the two countries’ foreign ministers, the release in October of a detained Australian journalist and, in November, the first visit by an Australian premier to Beijing since 2016.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, who was formerly a journalist based in Beijing, said the harsh punishment of Mr. Yang appeared to show the influence of China’s Ministry of State Security, its main intelligence agency. The security ministry would have scant concern about the impact of the sentence on diplomacy between Beijing and Canberra, Mr. McGregor noted.
“The Ministry of State Security was once secretive and low-profile,” he said in an email. “In recent times, they have started to express very public and hard-line views on foreign policy issues, and this verdict is in line with that trend.”