Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who appeared in a Beijing court on Monday to face espionage charges, was described as “very thin, very fragile” by friends in Sydney. This stark contrast to the charismatic man who had gained a significant online following in China for his writings on the internet’s potential to catalyze Chinese democracy marked a poignant moment for those who knew him during his vibrant days in Sydney. Yang’s career as a writer had flourished in Australia, where he was known as dynamic, relentlessly energetic, smart, funny, and astute.
Born in China, Yang migrated to Australia in 1999 after resigning from China’s Ministry of State Security, where he had worked for a decade. He pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Technology, Sydney, under the guidance of Chinese liberal scholar Feng Chongyi. Yang’s literary repertoire extended beyond democracy advocacy to encompass spy novels, with a trilogy—Fatal Weakness, Fatal Weapon, and Fatal Assassination—published in Taiwan between 2002 and 2005.
Could be life-time Imprisonment
His 2004 novel delved into a plotline involving the CIA director, U.S. president, and Taiwan’s president, revolving around tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Yang’s friends and family in Australia, including Feng, anxiously awaited news as a court sentence loomed, five years since his detention and after 10 previous verdict delays.
Unlike his one-day trial in May 2021, Australian diplomats were present in the Beijing courtroom this time. Yang’s Beijing lawyers, however, were forbidden from discussing the national security case. In Chinese law, a suspended death sentence grants a two-year reprieve, after which it automatically converts to life imprisonment or, less commonly, fixed-term imprisonment.
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When detained in January 2019 during a visit to China, Yang was living in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. His prolific blogging earned him the moniker “democracy peddler,” covering topics such as Donald Trump’s presidency, Putin’s Russia, and North Korea. Notably, Yang had been detained in China briefly in 2011 on suspicion of links to online democracy activists.