Writer's Suspended Death Sentence Is a Reminder of China's Awful Record on Human Rights

Yang Hengjun's punishment will be commuted to life in prison if he passes a probationary period. But the espionage accusations against him are highly spurious.


A Chinese-Australian writer was given a suspended death sentence this week by a Chinese court in another reminder of the regime's hostility toward those who speak out against its human rights abuses. 

Yang Hengjun, a writer and blogger who was born in China and became an Australian citizen in 2000, had been vocal about his reformist opinions about the Chinese government. Not long after entering the country in 2019, he disappeared from public view and ultimately underwent a closed-door trial in May 2021 on dubious espionage charges during which he was reportedly not permitted to call witnesses. The death sentence comes with a two-year reprieve: If Yang is not accused of committing any more crimes during that probationary period, then his sentence will be commuted to life in prison. 

"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," Feng Chongyi, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney and a friend of Yang's, told the BBC.

The arrest appears to have soured the relationship between China and Australia, whose rapport in recent years had improved.

"Despite repeated requests by Australian officials, Chinese authorities have not provided any explanation or evidence for the charges facing Dr Yang," Marise Payne, then the minister for foreign affairs, said in a May 2021 statement. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has urged Yang's release.  

Yang has alleged torture at the hands of authorities, along with grotesque living conditions, which have reportedly caused his health to decline rapidly. He expressed pessimism from the outset about any hopes of being cleared, despite the flimsy charges, due to the high conviction rate in the Chinese judicial system. In 2014, The Washington Post reported that only 825 of the 1.16 million accused on trial were acquitted.

Yang's suspended death sentence is reserved for crimes deemed as having a "serious negative social impact," according to Ryan Mitchell, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.

But it is far more likely that Yang's crime has little to do with spying and more to do with his criticism of the Chinese government. "The Internet is the one check on China's local officials," he wrote in The Diplomat in 2015. "No wonder they're determined to squash it." The charges against him, his severe punishment, and the opaque proceedings underscore concerns over the country's extremely questionable record on human rights.

On January 5, 2021, Hong Kong police arrested 53 activists and former legislators for organizing to protest a vague national security law. Businessman Jimmy Lai, a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was also arrested in August 2020 after covering Chinese government abuses in his Hong Kong news outlet, the Apple Daily, which ceased publication in 2021. In January, he pleaded not guilty to charges of sedition and collusion with foreign forces, for which he will be tried without a jury.