The Australian novelist and former Chinese diplomat Yang Hengjun has been charged with espionage in Beijing.
Yang has been detained in China since January when he was arrested in Guangzhou. He is being held in Beijing in a ministry of state security detention centre.
The Australian embassy was informed by the Beijing national security bureau on Monday afternoon that Yang had been formally charged, “suspected of committing espionage crimes”.
Yang’s lawyer Rob Stary confirmed his client had been charged with “a single act of espionage”, though there were no details of the alleged act. It is not clear whether the charge relates to his work as a writer, blogger or democracy activist. It is also unclear whether Australia is the country he is alleged to have spied for.
Stary said Yang’s legal team held “particular anxiety” over the fact he had now been charged with an offence that potentially carried the death penalty. Julian McMahon, who represented Van Nguyen and members of the Bali Nine facing capital charges, has been engaged to represent Yang.
There is a range of espionage offences under Chinese law, carrying penalties from three years in jail to the death penalty. Previously, it had been speculated Yang might face lesser charges of endangering national security.
Yang, a naturalised Australian citizen since 2002, was initially held under a system known as “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a type of secret detention in which authorities can deny access to lawyers and family, and restrict external communication.
In July he was moved to a Beijing detention centre in the lead-up to expected charges. Australian consular officials have been allowed one half-hour visit each month.
Chinese-born Yang was formerly a diplomat for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, before working in the private sector in Hong Kong and moving to the US, then to Australia.
A novelist under the nom de plume Wei Shi, Yang has been a popular blogger, political commentator and agitator for democratic reforms in China for more than a decade.
“I’m like an old auntie jabbering on, always promoting democracy and repeating its benefits,” he wrote in an article in 2014. “Dictatorship is always torn down in one night, but good democracy isn’t built in one night.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said on Tuesday morning she was “disappointed” to learn that Yang had been charged, saying he had been held “in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months”. No evidence had been presented to support any allegation of spying, she said.
“China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits.”
Payne said she had discussed Yang’s case twice with China’s foreign minister, the state councillor Wang Yi, and written to the minister three times. Yang has been allowed seven consular visits during his detention; one is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
“We have serious concerns for Dr Yang’s welfare, and about the conditions under which he is being been held. We have expressed these in clear terms to the Chinese authorities,” Payne said.
“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.
Pointedly, Payne said Yang had to be treated in accordance with international human rights law, “with special attention to those provisions that prohibit torture and inhumane treatment, guard against arbitrary detention and that protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
Dr Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a friend of Yang’s, was detained for a week and interrogated by authorities in China over a study trip in 2017. He said there was no evidence to support any allegation of spying against Yang.
“I am furious at the news,” he said. “This is outrageous political persecution. I hope the international community will join hands to demand the release of Yang.”
A spokesman for China’s ministry of foreign affairs, Geng Shuang, said Yang’s case was proceeding “in accordance with the law” and that the state had “fully guaranteed” the protection of his rights.
But observers argue there has been no transparent process and the charges appear politically motivated.
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “While we don’t know the details of Yang’s case, the Chinese government has a record of deploying vague ‘national security’ charges to prosecute peaceful critics.”
Yang’s wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, an Australian permanent resident, has been banned from leaving China.