CANBERRA/SYDNEY - A Chinese-born Australian writer held in China since January has been formally arrested on suspicion of espionage, the Australian government said on Tuesday, amid growing tension between Canberra and its largest trading partner.
Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat turned online journalist and blogger, was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou while waiting for a transfer to Shanghai, after flying in from New York. He was later moved to the capital Beijing.
"Dr. Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement, adding Yang was formally arrested on suspicion of spying last Friday.
Espionage is punishable by death in China.
The arrest of Yang, 53, whose legal name is Yang Jun, comes as Beijing struggles to contain anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
There was no immediate response from China's Foreign Ministry. The Chinese embassy in Canberra was not immediately available for comment.
China has not allowed Yang access to his lawyers or family since his detention, Payne said. However, Australian embassy officials have visited Yang seven times since January, the government said.
Yang's Australian lawyer, Robert Stary, was not immediately available for comment.
Feng Chongyi, an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney, said the allegations against his friend were very serious.
"It is absolutely outrageous they can provide no evidence for these politically motivated charges," Feng told Reuters.
Although Yang's recent writing has mostly avoided Chinese politics, he became prominent in the early 2000s when he earned the nickname "democracy peddler."
"China has been looking to clamp down on democracy efforts.
This is a clear message against those efforts," said Alex Joske, an analyst at the International Cyber Policy Center, a think-tank.
Several Australians have faced jail time in China over the past decade, including the former head of global miner Rio Tinto's China iron ore business, Australian citizen Stern Hu, who served eight years after a conviction in 2010 for corruption and stealing commercial secrets.
His arrest in 2008 came after tension flared between the world's top user of iron ore and its biggest supplier, Australia.
More recently, 16 staff from Australia's Crown Resorts , including three Australians, were jailed for between nine and 10 months in 2017 and fined 8.62 million yuan ($1.2 million) for promoting gambling to lure Chinese high-rollers to its casinos.
Their jail time included the several months they were detained ahead of what was a swift trial, part of a wider crackdown on gambling in China.
($1 = 7.0928 Chinese yuan renminbi)