Australia hit out on Wednesday at China’s apparent decision to indict a prominent author on spying charges, insisting he is at risk from Covid-19 and must be freed.
Chinese-Australian writer Yang Jun – also known by his pen name Yang Hengjun – was detained over a year ago, soon after making a rare return to China from the United States.
Australia said it had not been formally notified of the espionage indictment, but slammed China for a lack of solidarity during the global coronavirus pandemic – which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr Yang has not been acknowledged,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said.
“Dr Yang’s poor health makes him especially vulnerable to Covid-19,” she said, adding he was being held in “harsh” conditions.
Yang has not being allowed access to lawyers and is believed to have been interrogated while shackled during his detention.
“This is unacceptable treatment of an Australian citizen,” Payne said. “We call for Dr Yang’s immediate release and that he be allowed to leave China and travel to Australia with his wife.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not confirm the indictment at a press briefing on Wednesday, but said Yang was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities that undermine our country’s national security.”
Geng said Yang’s legal rights were “fully guaranteed” but that authorities had temporarily stopped arranging visits as part of epidemic control measures.
“We urge Australia to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop any interference while China handles the case,” he said.
Yang is the latest in a string of foreign nationals to be detained in China for espionage or attempting to steal “state secrets”.
Aust academic in Iran
Yang’s case was one of two highlighted by Payne as “unjust” – and situations in which the people being held should be considered for leniency given the coronavirus epidemic.
The other involved an Australian academic named Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an academic being held in grim circumstances in Iran.
Payne said she was “also concerned in particular for the health, safety and wellbeing of Australians unjustly detained overseas and those who continue to be held in detention despite a compelling humanitarian case for furlough or the remission of their sentences.
“Prison conditions in the context of the pandemic are of concern to Australia. My Department and I have made multiple, high-level, strong diplomatic representations on such cases, including Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran and Dr Hengjun Yang in China.
“We will continue to advocate strongly for them, and others in unjust detention or with humanitarian cases for clemency, and to ensure they are treated humanely and in accordance with international standards.”
Some critics have accused Beijing and Tehran of “hostage taking” in a bid to pressure Western nations to adopt softer political stances in regard to their governments.
Two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – were also detained in China in December 2018.
Many Canadians have argued that the detention of the “two Michaels” was retaliation by Beijing for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, in Vancouver over charges laid that she and Huawei had dealings with Iran deemed illegal by the United States.