An energetic blogger who resented the Chinese authorities

Australian writer Yang Hengjun sentenced to a suspended death sentence in China

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Jang Hengjun with his wife at an unknown location before his arrest in China, Photo: Beta/P
Jang Hengjun with his wife at an unknown location before his arrest in China, Photo: Beta/P
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Chinese-born Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who was given a suspended death sentence for espionage in a Beijing courtroom yesterday, looked "very thin, very frail", friends in Sydney said.

According to his wife, who was in the courtroom yesterday, Yang was described as a shadow of the charismatic man who rose to prominence two decades ago by writing about the Internet's potential to boost Chinese democracy.

China
photo: REUTERS

Young's writing career began in Australia. "Dynamic, tirelessly energetic, smart, witty and bright," is how one writer described Young.

Yang was born in China and, after leaving China's Ministry of State Security where he worked for ten years, migrated to Australia in 1999. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Technology in Sydney under the prominent Chinese liberal academic, Feng Chongyi.

Young became famous as a writer of thrillers at the beginning of his career, Reuters points out. Between 2002 and 2005, he wrote a trilogy of spy novels, Fatal Weakness, Fatal Weapon and Fatal Murder, which were published in Taiwan.

In the 2004 novel, the CIA director, the US president and the president of Taiwan are involved in a plot about tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Yesterday's sentencing, five years after his arrest, shocked his family and friends, and Reuters estimates that it could threaten the recent thaw in relations between Australia and China, which until the end of last year were strained over trade, Covid-19 and China's security stance.

Together with Yang's wife, Chinese blogger Yuan Xiaoliang, Australian diplomats were in the courtroom in Beijing yesterday, unlike the one-day trial in May 2021, when then Australian ambassador Graham Fletcher was not allowed to enter.

A suspended death sentence under Chinese law provides the accused with a two-year reprieve, after which it is automatically converted to life imprisonment, or, less commonly, a fixed prison sentence.

Based on reports from Australian embassy officials who visited Yang once a month in prison, his family was informed that his health was deteriorating.

His two sons, who live in Australia, sent a letter to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in October urging him to seek Yang's release on medical grounds after consulate staff told them he had lost consciousness several times and had been unable to walk for weeks. In messages to family and friends during his five years in prison, Yang repeatedly declared himself a Chinese patriot. Yang told his sons that he was proud of everything he wrote on the Internet "to contribute to the welfare of the people and the wealth and strength of our country."

"The Chinese government punished him for criticizing human rights violations in China and for his advocacy of universal values ​​such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law," Feng said.

When he was arrested in January 2019 while visiting China for the New Year with his wife, Yang was living in New York as a visiting researcher at Columbia University. He made extra money by working as a "daigou," or online shopping agent, for Chinese consumers eager for American products.

He was a very active blogger, called a "democracy seller", and wrote over 70 columns in Chinese in 2017, many on foreign policy topics, including Donald Trump's presidency, Vladimir Putin's Russia and North Korea.

One blog post from 2017 was titled “Are you scared when Trump learns from China?”

In 2015-2016, Yang also published articles in English in the magazine "Diplomat" on topics that include criticism of the US attitude towards China, the views of Chinese internet users on North Korea, as well as the issues of Taiwan unification and Chinese corruption.

Yang was arrested once before in China, in 2011, on suspicion of having ties to pro-democracy activists on the Internet.

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