Last week the Chinese government moved to advance formal legal proceedings against Australian academic Dr. Yang Hengjun on a charge of espionage. Yang has been detained by the Chinese authorities for over a year, however Beijing has not provided any information or evidence regarding the nature of the allegations against him. The Chinese government has prevented Australian consular officials from visiting Yang since December, citing concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Yang’s Chinese lawyer has also been denied access.
Although charges were laid against Yang last August, his case has now been transferred to the legal body known as the People’s Procuratorates, which is an institution deemed similar to an office of government prosecutors in the West. Under Chinese law, all cases that are being recommended for prosecution must first be reviewed by this body. The procuratorates examine the evidence against the suspect and issues a directive to prosecute if there is substantial evidence. Like most aspects of the Chinese state it is an opaque process, with considerable political interference.
One new aspect of the situation has complicated the matter for Yang. Yang had previously stated that prior to moving to Australia he was employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. However, it was recently revealed that he had in fact been working for China’s powerful intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and held a position within the body for 14 years.
Upon migrating to Australia, Yang subsequently became a strong advocate for democratic reforms in China, and for Beijing to demonstrate greater respect for human rights. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) usually finds this kind of advocacy particularly sensitive when expressed by ethnic Chinese who have migrated to the West. But being advanced by a former intelligence officer, with an intimate understanding of China’s security operatus, is extra galling for Beijing.
The situation would also invariably lead the CCP to assume that Yang had been sharing his knowledge with the Australian intelligence agencies (and by extension the Five Eyes). And this is where the allegation that Yang has been involved in espionage comes from. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne denied last August that Yang was an Australian spy and Beijing has yet to produce any evidence to contradict Payne or implicate Yang.
Last week, Payne issued a statement that the Australian government “strongly objects to the formal indictment” of Yang, and is “very disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not yet provided formal advice on Dr Yang’s indictment.” Payne also tied Beijing’s lack of cooperation with Australia on the matter to the current global coronavirus pandemic, stating “Crises are a time for nations to pull together. It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr Yang has not been acknowledged.”
It is not difficult to conclude that the timing of Yang’s formal indictment has a purpose. The Chinese government would be hoping that the current global health crisis will provide significant cover from the greater scrutiny that this issue might otherwise receive. While initially the coronavirus had been seen as a threat to the CCP’s continued rule, there are now signs that the party is viewing the health crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its power.
With the prevention of dissent always a primary concern for the party, making an example of Yang would be viewed as important for the CCP’s domestic signalling, particularly to other operatives in the MSS. While not technically a defector, Yang’s previous role within the security agency — and subsequent activities as a foreign democracy advocate — makes him a significant symbolic figure. His trial will be a warning shot to both present or former security operatives who may have migrated to the West — or are considering doing so — that it would be difficult for them to visit China if they choose to fully exercise their liberties in their new countries.
It seems unlikely that any attempts by Australia to secure Yang’s release will be successful. The revelations about the reality of Yang’s previous employment in China make him a much bigger fish to the CCP than previously thought. It will increase the difficulties that Canberra will have in advocating on his behalf and convince Beijing that he has not been cooperating with Australia’s intelligence agencies. Of course, whether he has been cooperating or not is probably besides the point. The suspicious perception of the CCP that it could be possible will be the prosecution that will drive his probable conviction.