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China Urged to Free Australian Academic After 5 Years of Detention

FILE - Writer Yang Hengjun is seen in an undated photo. (Radio Free Asia)
FILE - Writer Yang Hengjun is seen in an undated photo. (Radio Free Asia)

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong on Friday called on China to release detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun. The day marked the fifth anniversary of the author and democracy activist's detention in Beijing on suspicion of spying. Yang was imprisoned during a visit to China and charged with espionage. His trial was held in May 2021.

Wong said in a statement that the "Australian government remains deeply troubled by the ongoing delays" in Yang’s case. Wong has called on China to adhere to "basic standards of justice [and] procedural fairness." Wong has promised to "continue to advocate for Yang's interests and wellbeing at the highest levels."

Yang was arrested in Guangzhou in 2019, at a time that diplomatic relations between Australia and China were rapidly deteriorating. There followed years of disagreement and distrust over various geopolitical and trade issues, including the South China Sea, the future status of Taiwan and the origins of COVID-19. Analysts believe that those tensions appear to be easing, but after five years Yang remains in detention in Beijing.

The Chinese-born Australian citizen went on trial accused of spying in May 2021, but a verdict has not yet been made public.

Feng Chongyi, a professor of China studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and friend of Yang, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Friday that Yang is being unfairly treated by China.

"It is an outrageous fabricated case against Yang,” he said. “It is an outrageous political persecution. He did not commit any crime according to international norms and legal terms."

In October, China released Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who had been in detention for more than three years. She was accused of "supplying state secrets overseas," an allegation she denied.

Australian officials say she was freed after legal proceedings against her came to an end. Australian diplomats were told by Chinese officials that Cheng's case had come to an end. No other details were given.

Australia’s left-leaning government came to power in May 2022 and has sought to stabilize relations with China, while stressing that there would be areas of disagreement.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a high-profile visit to Beijing in November, telling journalists on the trip that he had raised Yang’s case.

China is, by far, Australia’s biggest trading partner.