Monday, February 05, 2024

Australian writer Yang Hengjun sentenced to death on China spy charges

 Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least. 

-Lord Chesterfield, 1748 

China 🇨🇳 Inside Australia - : The dark art of political manipulation
“In every age there have been political hucksters, using aggression, lies and outrage to drown out reasoned argument” writes George Monbiot  on his website. “But not since the 1930s have so many succeeded. Trump, Johnson, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolas Maduro, Viktor Orban and many others have discovered that the digital age offers rich pickings.”
He describes the psychology of political manipulation used by these populist demagogues. It involves raising people’s anxieties, because when we feel threatened we cannot hear the considered voices of reason.  No matter how carefully-considered and well-argued are the messages of opposition parties, they won’t be heard.

Australia lost its fear of the Chinese Communist Party in the last few years. Now Beijing is setting out to recondition us to be afraid once more.
Three months ago, it was a deliberately dangerous naval manoeuvre against the crew of the HMAS Toowoomba in international waters. Beijing pretended nothing had happened.
Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019.
Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019. AP
Now it’s an outlandishly harsh punishment of an Australian citizen, a suspended death penalty for a man in fragile health with two young sons in Australia, Yang Hengjun. Beijing pretends it’s purely an independent judicial matter at arm’s length from the government.
Just when the Australian government was convincing itself that the long China crisis was over, that it had successfully “stabilised” relations, inviting President Xi Jinping to visit.
“Beijing is trying to send the message, ‘we can do something really nasty’,” says an associate professor of China Studies at University of Technology, Sydney, Feng Chongyi, who happens to have been Yang’s PhD supervisor many years ago. He puts the naval incident into the same category as Yang’s death sentence: “They kill the chicken to frighten the monkey,” a traditional Chinese folk metaphor. The monkey, in this case, is the Albanese government. But why?
They want Australia to submit,” says Feng. It doesn’t seem to make sense. After Xi’s campaign of coercion against Australia backfired, Beijing started to remove its punitive measures.
Under the pretext that Australia had elected a new and friendlier government, China’s regime ended its political freeze on Canberra, dismantled some trade bans and released Cheng Lei.
So why the “really nasty” things now? Feng cautions that Australian logic cannot be applied, only the party’s logic. “They can want stabilisation and they want Australia to submit and they want both at the same time.
“Xi Jinping’s catchphrase is ‘I want this and, in the meantime, I want this as well’. They think they are gods. They want everything.” Xi is perpetually seeking to separate Australia from the US, he says…

Australian writer Yang Hengjun sentenced to death on China spy charges

Yang has been imprisoned for five years on charges of espionage that he and Australia have rejected.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was arrested in China on espionage charges in 2019, has been handed a suspended death sentence by a court in Beijing.

The terms of the sentence mean Yang’s sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment for good behaviour.

“The Australian government is appalled by this outcome,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told reporters as she confirmed the sentence, the SBS News outlet reported.

Wong said Canberra would be responding “in the strongest terms”, including by summoning the Chinese ambassador.

“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, a 58-year-old blogger and pro-democracy activist, was arrested in January 2019 when he arrived at Guangzhou airport with his wife and was accused of having “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people”.

Yang, a Chinese-born Australian, has denied the charges against him, as have his friends and family. A previous Australian government described the writer’s detention as “unacceptable”.

On Monday, supporters reacted with dismay to the sentence.

“He is punished by the Chinese government for his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” friend and colleague Feng Chongyi was quoted as saying by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Feng said Yang’s family, who were in court, had told him of the sentence.

Feng previously told Al Jazeera that Yang worked for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) at the provincial level for 14 years and began writing spy novels as he became more frustrated with his work.

He moved to Australia in 2000 and five years later, began studying under Feng at the University of Technology Sydney, where he “transformed himself into a liberal”. At the time of his detention, he was working in New York.

Yang was put on trial in May 2021, having had limited access to lawyers. China has not revealed the exact charges against him or which country he is alleged to have been spying for.

An Australian sentenced to death. Penny Wong won’t face a bigger test than this
The Albanese government’s China stabilisation strategy faces its biggest test with the shock sentence handed to Australian academic and pro-democracy writer Yang Hengjun.
Harrowing is how Foreign Minister Penny Wong described Yang’s suspended death sentence, which was far harsher than many observers had expected. At best, Yang will spend the rest of his life in jail after languishing in detention in Beijing for five years on suspicion of spying.
 Polling shows that voters have given the government high marks for its handling of relations with China, and rightly so.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s oft-repeated formula of “co-operating where we can, disagreeing where we must” with China paid off in October when Beijing released jailed journalist Cheng Lei and paved the way for damaging trade blockages to be lifted on Australian wine exports. This was achieved without concessions from Australia on matters of core national interest and laid the foundation for a successful trip by Albanese to Beijing.
Yet just weeks after Albanese returned from China, trouble erupted when Australian sailors suffered minor injuries from sonar pulses allegedly issued by a Chinese destroyer. The government criticised China for unsafe and unprofessional conduct, but Albanese refused to comment on whether he raised the matter directly with Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit.
Wong has gone further following the Yang verdict by summoning Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade headquarters in Canberra for a scolding.
“The Australian Government will be communicating our response in the strongest terms,” she told reporters, saying the government was “appalled” by the decision.
Usually cool and unflappable in public, Wong was visibly shaken by the news.
As they went about stabilising relations with China, government officials privately cautioned that Yang’s case was different to Cheng’s in important respects and that they were unlikely to be released in a package deal. Yang’s history as an exiled former Ministry of State Security officer and political activist made his case more sensitive in Beijing and a tougher challenge for Australian diplomats.
So it has proven, with Cheng now living freely in Melbourne and presenting bulletins on Sky News while Yang faces the prospect of execution by lethal injection if he angers Beijing again, while his supporters fear his health is so poor he will die in prison waiting for justice.
Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019.
Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019.CREDIT: AP
Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis said the Yang sentencing “treats the current government’s attempts at ‘stabilisation’ of the relationship with utter contempt”.
“The ‘two year’ good behaviour reprieve is designed to give Beijing more leverage to coerce concessions from Canberra,” he added.
The government must now decide how strongly to press Yang’s case while bracing for possible blowback from Beijing, which bristles at criticism of its legal system. Wine growers and lobster farmers will fear they will once again be the victims of a diplomatic dispute.
Wong said that, despite the Yang verdict, the government will continue to engage with China, indicating a leaders’ meeting in Australia could still go ahead later this year (a lower-profile, workmanlike visit by Chinese Premier Li Qiang is seen as more likely and desireable than one by Xi).
But that will be a matter for another day, when tempers between Australia and its biggest trading partner have cooled. Monday was a day for disagreement, not for co-operation.

‘Appalling’ death sentence rocks China relations
Efforts to stabilise the relationship with Beijing have suffered a serious setback after a Chinese court handed a suspended death sentence to jailed dual-citizen and democracy advocate Yang Hengjun.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government was “appalled” at what she described as “harrowing news” and said China’s ambassador to Australia had been summoned.
Yang Hengjun has been detained since January 2019. AP
At the same time, Senator Wong said Australian had to keep forging ahead with the rapprochement with China.
“Stabilisation means we cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, and we engage in the national interest,” she said.
“This is a decision within China’s legal system. Clearly this is an occasion which we disagree. However, Australia will continue to advocate for the interests of Dr Yang.
I do not step back from what I said ...which is the Australian government is appalled by this decision.”
The decision is a diplomatic blow to the Albanese government given it has made Dr Yang’s plight the subject of all talks between minsters and at a leadership level when Mr Albanese undertook an historic visit to China last year.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the Australian government “is appalled at the outcome”. Alex Ellinghausen

‘Extreme end of worst expectations’

Dr Yang, who previously worked for China’s Ministry of State Security, was detained at Guangzhou Airport in January 2019 after arriving from New York. He had been living in the United States where he was a visiting scholar at New York’s Columbia University. He became an Australian citizen in 2002.
Dr Yang was charged with espionage, tried in a closed-door hearing in May 2021, but no verdict has been delivered. Australian consular officials were denied access to the trial.
In a brief statement, an intermediary said Dr Yang’s family was “shocked and devastated by this news, which comes at the extreme end of worst expectations”.
The family requested time to process the decision and stood by the contents of a letter sent to Prime Minster Anthony Albanese on the eve of his historic trip to Beijing last year during which he raised Dr Yang’s plight with both Chinese Premier Li Qiang and President Xi Jinping.
Dr Yang’s sons released an open letter to the prime minster imploring him to secure the release of their father, fearing he will soon die, such was the poor state of his health.
Senator Wong said Dr Yang had been given the death sentence which, after two years, could be commuted to life in prison. She was loath to push too hard given there was an appeal mechanism and that China’s legal system needed to be respected.
“Dr Yang was charged with offences related to national security. That’s the basis on which the Chinese legal system has approached this.
“We’re not in a position to comment on the specifics of Dr Yang’s case. I would note that Australian officials were not able to attend Dr Yang’s trial in 2021.”
Senator Wong said it was important to make two points.
“First, is for the Australian government ... to express our view about the verdict and our view about the sentence,” she said.
“And the second is to express our empathy with and solidarity with Dr Yang’s family.”
She said Australia would not be recalling its ambassador in China, and she suggested Australia would still welcome a possible visit this year by Mr Qiang.
“We will continue to engage with China and part of that engagement is what I have articulated today, our response in relation to this particular advocate.”

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Phillip Coorey is the political editor based in Canberra. He is a two-time winner of the Paul Lyneham award for press gallery excellence. Connect with Phillip on Facebook and Twitter. Email Phillip at