The Guardian • Issue #2086

Op-Ed: Yang Hengjun and the fury of the Australian state

Spy.

The fury that has been unleashed by the Australian government, state and media following the sentencing of Yang Hengjun in Beijing deserves some thought. He must be innocent. Penny Wong says so, Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham says so, Peter Hartcher, in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald says so. Case dismissed.

The possibility that he just might have been guilty has never been an issue. The Australian public are assured that he was innocent. End of story. The case was not conducted in open trial. This is used to ‘prove’ that the dark hand of the Chinese Communist Party is at work, and, by implication, that an innocent man would necessarily be sentenced.

The Chinese have pointed out that the trial was handled in strict accordance with the law. They have reminded the furious West that Yang’s rights were respected, that he had access to Australian consular officials throughout the process and that Australian officials were able to sit in on the sentencing.

The Chinese also pointed out that the charges involved state secrets and that the trial dated back to 2021. Such cases, under Chinese law, are not heard in public. They did not make an issue of the fact that closed trials around espionage cases are common practice around the world. Perhaps they should have, but given the level of commentary from the Australian media and from the denunciations from government, it would have been unlikely to have been reported.

The trial process where defendants are charged with espionage or similar offences are covered in the USA under their Foreign Intelligence Surveillance courts. Any disclosure of information from these closed trials is strictly prohibited. The UK resumed secret trials in 2014. Australia is no different. All the tub-thumping about democratic rights and standing against communism or autocracy is shown to be hypocrisy.

Had the Yang trial been held before public scrutiny, then the same defenders of democratic values would have been labelling the process a ‘show trial.’

Yang Hengjun; guilty or not? Who can say? His story since leaving China and the Chinese Communist Party, first for Australia and then the USA before returning to his former homeland is interesting. A former party cadre, working in the ministry of State Security and Foreign Affairs, became a committed blogger. His PhD thesis is on the impact of pro-democracy blogging activities in China. He then sets about producing a claimed ten million words in on-line campaigning for constitutional democracy in China. He then moved to the USA, first as an academic and then working with a Chinese import-export company. He also found time to become a sort of Chinese John LeCarre, writing spy novels set in China, after returning to China to devote himself to pro-democracy activism.

It is impossible for us to know whether Yang is guilty or not. We do not have the special superhero powers of Penny Wong, or Simon Birmingham, or Peter Hartcher. But they know and that’s all that matters.

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