Both sides of Australian politics have renewed their pleas for Beijing to consider releasing Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who was detained in China five years ago.
Days after China’s top diplomat in Australia called for “patience” on the ongoing saga, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government would “continue to advocate” for the detained Australian-born Chinese citizen.
The writer and democracy activist was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of spying, as the relationship between the two countries began to deteriorate.
A Beijing court heard Dr Yang’s trial in secret in 2021, and the case against him has never been made public, with verdicts continuously delayed.
Dr Yang has denied working as a spy for Australia or the United States.
In letter he penned last year, which was made public through diplomatic channels, he expressed his fears of dying in detention amid a worsening kidney cyst he said was not being properly treated.
“If something happens with my health and I die in here, people outside won’t know the truth. That is frustrating,” Dr Yang wrote in August from detention.
“If something happens to me, who can speak for me?”
Beijing’s top diplomat in Australia, Xiao Qian, was asked about Dr Yang’s case during a rare media appearance earlier this week, and said the reports of worsening health were an over exaggeration.
Mr Xiao confirmed Dr Yang did indeed have “some health problems” but argued “these health problems are not as serious as has been publicly described by his family members”.
In light of the release of Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei late last year after three years of detention, Mr Xiao downplayed the prospect of Dr Yung being released in a similar fashion because the case was “different in nature”.
Pressed on why China would not deport Dr Yang to solve what is a major thorn in the otherwise improving bilateral relationship, Mr Xiao said the case was “still in the legal process” and called for patience.
“We’re now waiting for the Chinese legal authorities to continue with the necessary process. And I think we need to respect and be a bit patient on this issue,” he said.
Senator Wong said the government “remains deeply troubled by the ongoing delays in his case”.
“I want to acknowledge the strength that Dr Yang has demonstrated, and the strength of his family and friends. Our thoughts are with them all,” she said.
“Since Dr Yang was detained, the Australian Government has called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment for Dr Yang, in accordance with international norms and China’s legal obligations.
“The Australian government will continue to advocate for Dr Yang’s interests and wellbeing at the highest levels, including for the appropriate medical treatment, and provide consular assistance to him and his family.
The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said it was “completely unacceptable” that delays in Dr Yang’s case continue, with “no transparency over his charges, sentencing, or potential release”.
“The unjust detention of Dr Yang is distressing, especially for his loved ones. This distress is compounded by reports of his deteriorating health.
“The Coalition again offers bipartisan support for the Albanese Government to use all available diplomatic means to ensure Dr Yang’s wellbeing and secure his immediate and unconditional release and his return to his loved ones.
“The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister must ensure that Dr Yang’s unjust and indefinite detention is a top priority in any dialogue with the Chinese Government.
“For Dr Yang and his family, the suffering caused by uncertainty and separation for five years is difficult to comprehend. Our thoughts remain with Dr Yang and his family.