Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun faces China espionage trial
Chinese-Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is expected to go on trial in China on Thursday, charged with espionage and accused of acting as a spy for the Australian government.
In a letter written in March and released on the eve of the trial, Yang was stoic.
“There is nothing more liberating than having one’s worst fears realised,” he wrote in the letter, which was published in Australian media. “I have no fear now. I will never compromise.
“The values and beliefs which we shared, and which I shared with my readers, are something bigger than myself.”
The 56-year old writer, blogger and pro-democracy activist was arrested in January 2019 when he arrived at Guangzhou airport with his wife and faces a possible death sentence if he is found guilty of having “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people”. The minimum sentence is three years.
The accusation of acting as a spy for Australia has long been denied by the Australian government, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison describing the claim in 2019 as “absolutely untrue.” Canberra has called Yang’s detention “unacceptable”.
According to Amnesty International, Yang may have faced as many as 300 interrogations during his time in prison so far.
These interrogations, friend and colleague Feng Chongyi says, are designed to “extract a confession” and “fabricate a case against him”.
Feng, a Sydney-based Australian resident and self-confessed “Chinese Liberalist” was himself detained by the Chinese government for a week in 2017 after an academic visit.
“My detention was similar to Yang’s – to try to establish a case of espionage,” Feng told Al Jazeera. “But I was extremely lucky that I escaped the fate of Yang.”Feng says he and other liberals like Yang aim to “promote the rule of law, human rights and democratisation.”
“And of course, by doing that, we criticise the current one-party dictatorship and analyse Chinese society, especially the state-society relationship.”
State security official to activist, novelist
Feng has known Yang since 2005 as “a friend and a colleague”, describing him as “idealistic and aspirational”.
Feng confirmed that Yang worked for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) for 14 years at what he said was “a provincial level”.
But according to Feng, Yang became frustrated with his work with the MSS and began to write spy novels in order to “escape from that profession he no longer believed [in] or had any enthusiasm for”.
Such novels were based on Yang’s own experiences in the ministry and while not published in book form in China, were posted on the internet under a pseudonym.
Yang and Feng initially connected online. The former moved to Australia in 2000 and began studying under Feng at the University of Technology Sydney five years later.
In particular, Feng says, Yang would study “the probable effect of the internet on Chinese Communist rule. So by doing that, he transformed himself into a liberal”.
After Yang graduated, the two worked together on many joint publications, edited books and ran conferences on Chinese liberalism and democracy.Feng says that Yang’s father – a head teacher and teacher – “had been prosecuted by the regime [and] never had a good relationship or opinion about the Communist dictatorship”.
As such, he believes it may have been that influence, along with Feng’s tutelage, that transformed Yang from a provincial government agent to an outspoken pro-democracy activist.
Yang’s status as an Australian citizen has turned his detention and upcoming trial into an international diplomatic issue.