The Case of the Australian Writer in Chinese Prison

Image Credit: PEN Sydney

It might surprise many of out readers to learn that an Australian writer, blogger and academic, has been held in China since January 2019, charged with espionage, and pronounced guilty after a brief and perfunctory trial in a closed courtroom.

PEN International remains deeply concerned about Yang Hengjun, particularly as his sentence is still pending, two months after his trial on 27 May 2021. China continues to execute people for espionage. And a harsh sentence remains a strong possibility in this case.

According to some reports Yang Hengjun had a promising career in the Chinese Foreign Affairs Department, until he moved to Hongkong and then to Australia in 1999.  He became popular as the ‘democracy peddler’ in the early 2000s and garnered a large following with blogs dealing with sensitive issues including Chinese occupation of Tibet. 

In recent years, he had become more cautious in his commentary, and was more involved in business activities and writing spy novels. At the time of his detention, he had been living in New York for nearly two years as a visiting scholar at Columbia university. 

In January 2019, Yang reportedly flew with his wife and child from New York to China and was arrested at Guangzhou airport while waiting for a connecting flight.  He was initially held at a secret location for six months in a notorious form of extrajudicial detention called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location, where he appears to have been tortured in a bid to get a confession. In August 2019 he was formally arrested on charges of espionage. At no point have his family or the Australian government been informed of any further details or evidence for the charges. Yang Hengjun and the Australian government have strenuously denied that he spied for Australia.

Coming as it did, at a time of rising tensions between the Chinese and Australian government, Australian consular support for Dr Hengjun has been inadequate. Australian officials were denied access to the court during his trial in a breach of both the Vienna Convention and the Australia-China bilateral consular agreement.

A number of PEN Centres, including PEN Perth are continuing to monitor this case. And we welcome all ideas and information that might enable us to understand better and act in support of Yang Hengjun and his family.

In the meantime you can…

Take Action by:

  • Sending an appeal to the Chinese authorities
  • Telling others: share Yang’s case and his work via Twitter (see below)

In your letter request that the authorities:

  • Release Yang Hengjun immediately and unconditionally.
  • Allow Yang Hengjun’s family to leave the PRC without any restrictions.
  • Provide Yang Hengjun with unrestricted access to legal representatives of his choosing and to representatives of the Australian government.
  • End all policies that contravene the PRC government’s international human rights obligations.

Write to:

1. President Xi Jinping

General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China.

Address: General Secretary Office, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Zhongnanhai Ximen, Fuyou Street, Xicheng District, Beijing 100017

People’s Republic of China


2. Ambassador CHENG Jingye

Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Commonwealth of Australia

Address: 15 Coronation Drive, Yarralumla, ACT 2600, Australia.



3. Ambassador ZHANG Jun

Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations.

Address: 350 East 35th Street, New York, NY 10016, USA.



Tell others: share Yang Hengjun’s case and his work on Twitter:
#YangHengjun’s detention is a breach of his right to freedom of expression. I call for his immediate and unconditional release.

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