7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

Listen

7am Podcast

The Australian spy novelist charged with espionage in China

Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained by the Chinese government since 2019. He’s been charged with espionage offences and could face the death penalty.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained by the Chinese government since 2019.

He’s been charged with espionage offences, but the exact nature of what he’s accused of has never been revealed. He’s now awaiting the verdict of a secret trial held a few weeks ago, with the death penalty one possibility. 

Linda Jaivin is a former China correspondent and the author of ‘The Shortest History of China’. Today, she unpacks the mysterious case of Yang Hengjun and what his treatment says about the Chinese government's approach to human rights.

 

Guest: Writer Linda Jaivin.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones -  this is 7am.

 

Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained by the Chinese government since 2019. He’s been charged with espionage offences, but the exact nature of what he’s accused of has never been revealed. He’s now awaiting the verdict of a secret trial held a few weeks ago, with the death penalty one possibility. Linda Jaivan is a former China correspondent and the author of The Shortest History of China. Today, she unpacks the mysterious case of Yang Hengjun and what his treatment says about the Chinese government’s approach to human rights.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Linda, last week marked the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that anniversary really refocused attention on China's current human rights record. What is the situation like right now under current President Xi Jinping? 

 

LINDA:

It's actually very dire. And probably the worst situation for human rights since 1989. So it's a relevant anniversary. 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 1

“The United Nations human rights experts have expressed concern over China's collective repression over its population especially in Xinjiang and Tibet…”

 

LINDA:

Under Xi Jinping there's also been a very severe crackdown that's gone on for a very long time against any kind of human rights defenders, lawyers, outspoken people, feminists, workers rights activists.

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 2

“They had pushed back against President Xi Jinping’s move to tighten restrictions on free speech but were arrested and sentenced for subversion of power.”

 

LINDA:

There's been some very heavy sentences that have been handed down recently. Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who reported on the early stages of Covid in Wuhan, was recently sentenced to four years. 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 2

“Lawyers for the 37 year old say she has been on a hunger strike and is in poor health.” 

 

LINDA:

A critic of Xi Jinping’s, who was in the party and a very wealthy man, Ren Zhiqiang. He got handed an 18 year sentence after something he wrote got out that called Xi Jinping a clown or likened him to a clown. 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 3

“Rights advocates say this verdict proves that even the countries elite aren’t immune from the Chinese government’s increasinging rampant crackdown on freedom of speech”

 

LINDA:

So it's not a good situation in general. 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. So that's the context, I suppose, for the situation that this Australian writer, Yang Hengjun finds himself in. He's been on trial in China - what do we know about that trial? 

 

LINDA:

So Yang Hengjun has been in detention since being taken from Gwangju Airport on January 19th, 2019. He was taken by the Ministry of State Security, a security organ for which he himself had worked for over 10 years in the past. They held him, incommunicado pretty much, for six months. It was a very bad time. He had, I believe, hundreds of interrogations over that time. 

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung ChongyiUnidentified Man

“They can deny his sleep, may use other ways of torture as well to force him to admit to crimes he did not commit”

 

LINDA:

And he later told the embassy that he had been tortured, that he had been subjected to continuous artificial light and so on. After that, they then charged him with the crime of espionage. 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 4

“After two and a half years of waiting, Yang Hengjun faced a court that has likely already determined his fate.”

 

LINDA:

He was finally brought to trial on the 27th of May and he was taken out of his prison in full PPE with mask and goggles.The trial itself was held in closed court. The ambassador was denied entry, as were other independent observers. So really, we don't know exactly what he's being what he was being tried for. The lawyer, he was not able to speak about the charges in detail because they allegedly involved state secrets, but he has consistently asserted his innocence.

 

RUBY:

Mmm and can you tell me a bit more about him? I mean, he's an Australian citizen on trial in China, he’s ended up in this closed court. But who is he?

 

LINDA:

So, Yang Hengjun was born in Hubei province. He went to Fudan University. Yang then served in the Ministry of National Security for around 11 years. Following that, he came to Australia, became a citizen in 2002, undertook doctoral studies. He's also - and this is possibly very relevant we really don't know - He's been a very popular political blogger with millions of followers. He also wrote spy novels and his first one was published in 2004, Fatal Weakness, and it concerned an espionage plot to subvert the Beijing Olympics. And this has made him relatively prominent, according to his supporters. He describes himself as a ‘democracy peddler’. But I think it's really important to note that he was never a firebrand. He was not calling for really deep, systemic change. So he belongs roughly to a kind of a cohort of intellectuals - public intellectuals - in China who have wanted the reform-era policies to be carried out and respected and refined in the direction of rights and freedoms and so on. 

 

RUBY:

And as you said, Yang Hengjun says that he is innocent of the charge of espionage. But can you tell me a little bit more about what that charge means and what he says he thinks is behind it? 

 

LINDA:

So we really don't know what that means. I mean, beyond the general definition of espionage, I suppose, is the stealing and trading and acquiring of state secrets and so on. But he has said in his message to his supporters that he got out after the trial that the charges are about espionage. This is.. these are his words:

 

“But who did I work for? I didn't work for Australia or the US.”

 

But it's a really difficult thing to understand when we have no access to the nature of the charges. I don't doubt him when he when he says he is innocent. But what I'm saying is that we really don't know what they're doing with this, why they're going after him or what exactly they are accusing him of. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and so this trial, it happened a couple of weeks ago in a closed court. It's over now and we're waiting to hear what comes of it. So how likely is it that he will be convicted of espionage? And if he is, what's the sentence for that? 

 

LINDA:

OK, so the likelihood of conviction is upwards of 99 percent, not because of his particular case, but that is what happens in Chinese courts across the board once a case has come to trial. So we can be pretty sure that he will be convicted. Now, the sentence is the real question. The most that we can hope for, for Yang is that he gets the minimum sentence, which would be three years, which would consider the time that he has already spent in detention as part of that sentence. And that would be the best case, you know, scenario. Or where there has been what's called ‘grave harm to the state and people’, the death penalty. So that's what he's potentially facing. 

 

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment...Linda, we're talking about the espionage trial of Australian citizen Yang-Hengjun. I want to talk a bit more about the politics behind all of this. You mentioned that since becoming China's leader, Xi Jinping has overseen a pretty fierce crackdown on civil society in China. So to what extent do you think that what we're seeing with the trial of Yang Hengjun is part of that crackdown? 

 

LINDA:

It's very, very hard to say. I've been speaking to Professor Fung Chongyi of UTS.

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung Chongyi

“Ahhh, he came to enrol in a Phd program at UTS, which to me as the principal supervisor, back at the end of 2005.” 

 

LINDA:

He is a very close friend of Yang Hengjun. He was his doctoral supervisor as well. 

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung Chongyi

“He's extremely easygoing and full of humour, what can I describe it, he’s a very smart guy…”

 

LINDA:

And Professor Fung does believe it's intimately connected. 

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung Chongyi

“Like Tiananmen Square or Beijing Spring back in 1989, his detention was a part of the nationwide crackdown on dissent...” 

 

LINDA:

He pointed out to me that Yang was arrested in January 2019 at a time when the Communist Party was becoming obsessed with the threat of a collar revolution... of some kind of, you know, civil society-based revolution or uprising against it. So in that context, perhaps they saw his writings as fitting into that category of people who are dangerous. 

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung Chongyi

“I'm deeply concerned about this. This is a heavily fabricated case for political prosecution. The Senate authorities is determined to punish him without regard to legal evidence or not.” 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. And Linda, Australia's relationship with China is at the lowest point that it's probably ever been. So how much is that impacting the way that he's been treated? 

 

LINDA:

So there are some theories that this is tied up with the worsening relations between Australia and China. In that context the Australian government has been pretty clear and strong and steady in its advocacy for Yang's rights to due process and so on. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“We'll stand up for our citizen and we'll expect him to be treated appropriately and his human rights to be respected.”

 

LINDA:

They have been consistent in trying to make sure that they had the consular access to which he is entitled. 

 

Archival Tape -- Marise Payne

“We have requested and we do expect consular access at the earliest possible opportunity in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement.” 

 

LINDA:

They didn't always get it. And the Australian government has been critical of that. 

 

Archival Tape -- Marise Payne

“We will continue to make representations to China to ensure that this matter is dealt with transparently and fairly.”

 

LINDA:

The Chinese have kicked back at this very fiercely and with quite hostile language.

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader1

“The embassy in Canberra taking aim. “The statement by the Australian Foreign Minister is deplorable. The Australian side should respect China's judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering.”

 

LINDA:

So what we have is a situation where you have a number of factors playing into the case, for example, Australia's relationship with China is tense. That's not good for him. His writings were critical. That's not good for him. What is the exact thing that they are focusing on? We just don't know. What is the thing that tipped this over into the detention and the arrest and charge and trial of Yang Hengjun, we don't know what exactly it was, but certainly all of this would play a part in the way that it's handled and treated and and ultimately sentenced.

 

RUBY:

Hmm. And Yang Hengjun himself, he is presumably waiting to hear the outcome of the trial. Do we know much more about his situation? Has he said anything? Do we know where he is? 

 

LINDA:

Well, he would have been taken back to the detention centre. We know that one of his goals is to get treatment for very bad dental problems that he's been suffering. He says that he can only use two teeth when he eats now, he's in some pain. He just has to wait. He has said that ‘there is nothing more liberating than having one's worst fears realised. I have no fear now. I will never compromise’. So he's maintaining his innocence. And there was something very interesting in his statement, and that is he used the phrase rule of law 10 times in his post-trial statement. He said he hoped that the judgement would be made by the rule of law. And this is something that you have to know a little bit about the background to understand. In China in Mao's day, Mao took great pride in having no law, of being lawless. He actually said at one point to the American Edgar Snow towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. He said, ‘I am like a monk under an umbrella’. And Edgar Snow thought that what he was saying was, ‘I'm just a lonely old man’. And what he was really saying, “Wo fa wo tian” was a Chinese joke. It's a pun. And what it means is ‘I have no law. There is no heaven above me. And there is No law like I am a complete dictator, I am... I do what I like’. In the post Mao era, Deng Xiaoping and other leaders worked really, really hard to restore rule of law, a phrase they used ‘fazhi’, which is the exact same phrase that Yang Hengjun is using. And the idea of ‘fazhi’ rule of law is that everyone is responsible to the law. The law is impartial. But what Xi Jinping has done is change the language and the rhetoric around this. He uses a different Chinese expression, which is ‘yifa zhiguo’. It still has that word for law and it still has the idea of ruling. But what it means is that the government, the leaders, the party, uses law as a tool to rule the country. The reason I bring this up is because I noticed that he used that expression, the original one that Deng Xiaoping reform-era expression 10 times. That is definitely a criticism of the way things are done. And it's an idealistic plea to the current regime to restore that kind of law, the law that obeys itself, essentially, and no higher authority. 

 

Archival Tape -- Professor Fung Chongyi

“He’s quite a gentle, gentle man, and what he has done over the last two decades, he gave up his bureaucratic career, very polite, actually, in the his security apparatus to pursue his aspiration for freedom, human rights and democracy for China, and doing all these to help the Chinese people, and to contribute to the cause of human rights and democracy at great cost to himself.”

 

RUBY:

Linda, thank you so much for your time today. 

 

LINDA:

Thank you. 

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news…

Victoria recorded two more cases of COVID-19 on Sunday as health authorities raced to track down the original source of the new Delta variant linked to the outbreak. The State Government and health experts are unsure how the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than previous strains of the virus, entered the community. The current hypothesis is that it leaked out via hotel quarantine.


I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

From the front page

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image via ABC News

Supply and demands

State leaders feel the strain over the federal government’s latest vaccine mishap

Alien renaissance

A revived interest in alien visitation only underscores how little we know about the universe

Cartoon image of man with head in the clouds

The return of the lucky country

The pandemic has exposed the truth of Donald Horne’s phrase, and the morbid state of our national leadership

Image from ‘My Name Is Gulpilil’

Like no actor ever: ‘My Name Is Gulpilil’

Molly Reynolds’s beautiful documentary is a fitting tribute to David Gulpilil, at the end of his singular life


Read on

Alien renaissance

A revived interest in alien visitation only underscores how little we know about the universe

Cartoon image of man with head in the clouds

The return of the lucky country

The pandemic has exposed the truth of Donald Horne’s phrase, and the morbid state of our national leadership

Image of Bo Burnham in Inside.

On loop: Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’

The American comedian’s vulnerable and nuanced look at constant perception in the digital age

Dreaming of Biloela

Tharnicaa Murugappan versus 30 years of policy