A Chinese-born Australian writer detained for months in China has been formally arrested on charges of espionage, officials in Canberra confirmed on Tuesday.
Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat who reportedly became an Australian citizen in 2002 but retains a Chinese passport, has also lived and worked in the United States.
He is the author of three spy novels set in China, according to Reuters. In the past, he has written voluminously on his blog about the rule of law, democracy and human rights, according to news.com.au. However, according to Reuters, in recent years, he has stayed away from sensitive topics and concentrated instead on running an import-export business.
Yang was first detained seven months ago in China’s southern province of Guangzhou after arriving there from New York en route to Beijing, according to the news agency. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne says Yang has been held under “harsh conditions” and that Canberra has “serious concerns” for his welfare.
“There is no basis for any allegation Dr. Yang was spying for the Australian government,” Payne said of Yang, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Technology in Sydney.
She said she was “very concerned and disappointed” and would “advocate strongly” for his release.
Rob Stary, an Australia-based attorney for Yang, said the Chinese government has given no details on the charge of espionage.
A China-based lawyer for Yang, Shang Baojun, was quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald as saying there would be an investigation for “at least two months” and “if they find him guilty, the case will be handed over to prosecutors.”
According to the Herald, those close to Yang believe his academic work and pro-democracy activism may be the reason for his arrest.
Yang’s wife, Yian Xiaoling, a Chinese citizen who is also reportedly a permanent resident of Australia, was prevented from leaving China and questioned by Chinese authorities, The Guardian reported.
Payne said she had spoken to Chinese officials twice and had written to him on multiple occasions in the past several months.
“It is important, and we expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met. I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr. Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released,” she said.
Yang faces more than 10 years in prison if found guilty.