Australia’s government said Monday writer Yang Hengjun has been given a suspended death sentence in China, describing it as “harrowing news”.
The Chinese-born Australian citizen has been in jail in China since 2019 on spying accusations and is said to be in ill health.
“The Australian government is appalled at this outcome,” Foreign Minister Penny Wong told a news conference.
Canberra understood that the death sentence could be commuted to life in jail after a period of two years, Wong said.
“We will be communicating our response in the strongest terms,” the Australian minister said.
The sentence was “the most harrowing news”, she told reporters.
Wong said the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, would be summoned to hear the government’s objection.
“I want to acknowledge the acute distress that Dr. Yang and his family will be feeling today, coming after years of uncertainty,” she said.
Yang’s verdict and sentence had been repeatedly delayed since his closed-door trial on national security charges in May 2021, she said.
Australia had consistently called for “basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment”, she said.
“Australia will not relent in advocacy for justice for Dr. Yang’s interests and wellbeing including appropriate medical treatment,” the minister said.
“All Australians want to see Dr. Yang reunited with his family,” Wong said.
‘Who can speak for me?’
The suspended death sentence will be seen as a setback in Australia-China relations, which had appeared to be warming.
Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released in October 2023 after more than three years’ detention on espionage charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Yang’s friends said last year that he feared he would die in jail without proper medical treatment because of cyst growing on his kidney.
“If something happens with my health and I die in here, people outside won’t know the truth,” he said in a note shared with friends and supporters.
“If something happens to me, who can speak for me?”
Yang, who denies the spying claims, was arrested on a rare trip back to China in January 2019.
The writer — who also goes by his pen name Yang Hengjun — has previously told supporters he was tortured at a secret detention site and feared forced confessions may be used against him.
Tensions between Canberra and Beijing mounted in 2018 when Australia excluded the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G network.
Then in 2020, Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 — an action China saw as politically motivated.
In response, Beijing slapped high tariffs on key Australian exports, including barley, beef and wine, while halting its coal imports.
Most of those tariffs have been lifted during the centre-left government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who made a breakthrough trip to Beijing in November 2023, hailing progress as “unquestionably very positive”.
Tensions remain however when it comes to security, as Australia draws closer to the United States in an effort to blunt China’s expanding influence in the South Pacific region.