Australian writer Yang Hengjun wishes Happy New Year to his Twitter followers at an unidentified location in this still image from an undated video obtained via social media. (Twitter @YANGHENGJUN)
Australian writer Yang Hengjun wishes Happy New Year to his Twitter followers at an unidentified location in this still image from an undated video obtained via social media. (Twitter @YANGHENGJUN)

SYDNEY - Chinese authorities have warned Australia not to interfere in the case of a Chinese-Australian writer who has been formally arrested in China on suspicion of spying.  Yang Hengjun, who was born in China but is an Australian citizen, has been held in Beijing since January.  Australia has become increasingly critical of China's treatment of him in recent months. 

Yang Hengjun has been under investigation for allegedly harming China's national security, but Australian officials have been told he is now suspected of espionage.  The former Chinese diplomat has been detained in Beijing without access to family or lawyers since January.

In a strongly worded statement, the Australian government says the writer is being held in “harsh conditions” and it has “serious concerns for his welfare.”  Foreign minister Marise Payne said that if the Sydney-based academic was “being held for his political beliefs, he should be released.”

Alex Joske, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says other western powers should intervene on his behalf .

“Countries like the UK, Canada, the U.S. and the E.U.  all have a stake in this.  They all have a duty to try to protect the rights of the people who are being oppressed by totalitarian states and trying to make sure that the rule of law is being upheld," said Joske.

It’s thought Yang migrated to Australia in the early 2000s.  The writer has been a vocal critic of Chinese authorities, and was arrested earlier this year on a rare trip back home.

Yang's wife Yang Ruijian has been granted permanent residency by Australia, but China has prevented her leaving the country.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman insisted the writer was being processed in accordance with the law.  He said Beijing was strongly dissatisfied with Australia's comments on his detention and called on it not to interfere in the case.

Media reports have suggested that if convicted Yang could face a long prison term or perhaps the death penalty.