Australian Writer Held Captive by China Alleges Torture in Christmas Message

Yang Hengjun
Yang Hengjun/Twitter

Author, blogger, and Chinese-born Australian citizen Yang Hengjun, arrested by China on murky allegations of espionage in January 2019 and held without trial ever since, sent a Christmas message on Tuesday to the family he isn’t allowed to see.

Yang defiantly urged his supporters around the world to fight for “democracy, rule of law, and freedom” and said his Chinese captors have tortured him.

Yang, 55, was arrested at the airport in the Chinese city of Guangzhou when he arrived from New York for a rare visit to China with his wife and child. His arrest was not officially announced until the following August, he was not formally charged with espionage until October 2020, and his trial was delayed for another three months on Wednesday. He has not been allowed to see his family during his long, lawless incarceration by the Chinese regime, and he was not given access to a lawyer until he had already been in jail for 18 months.

Yang was born in China and worked for the Chinese Foreign Ministry before becoming a famed pro-democracy blogger. In a 2011 letter to one of his supporters, he said he also worked as a spy for the Chinese government. He became an Australian citizen in 2002 but was living in the United States at the time of his arrest, widely seen as a Chinese slap at the Australian government during a time of rising tensions over China’s influence in Australian politics. 

“We have serious concerns for Dr. Yang’s welfare, and about the conditions under which he is being held,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said when his arrest was finally announced in August. Yang holds a doctorate from the University of Technology Sydney and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York before his fateful trip to China.

“If Dr. Yang is being held for his political beliefs, he should be released. We expect that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met,” Payne said at the end of August 2019, about ten months before Yang was finally given access to legal counsel by the Chinese government.

The regime in Beijing shot back that Australia should “earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not intervene in any cases handled in China.”

Australian officials frequently voiced concerns about Yang suffering physical and psychological abuse during his captivity, including daily interrogations in shackles, bright lights around the clock in his cell, long hours forced to sit in stress positions, and complete isolation from his friends and family. His only contact with the outside contact was a single half-hour visit with Australian consular officials each month, and even that was sometimes denied to him.  

Australian lawyers working for Yang said in December 2019 that Chinese security officials “blocked all written messages, letters, books and documents from being passed to Dr Yang,” including multiple letters written each month by his family. They said he was in good health at the time of his arrest, but was now suffering from high blood pressure and kidney problems, possibly exacerbated by dubious “medicines” he was required to take.

Over 430 days after he was arrested at the Guangzhou airport, Yang was finally indicted on vague charges of “espionage” by the Chinese government. Australian officials, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, dismissed the charges as unsubstantiated fabrications and called for Yang’s immediate release. By this point, Yang had reportedly lost ten pounds, had difficulty walking, and begun suffering from dizziness and memory loss.

Sources told the UK Guardian that when Yang was allowed to meet with consular officials, he was “brought into meetings in handcuffs, a face mask and a blindfold by guards wearing full-body PPE,” forced to “sit in a wooden chair fitted with a restraint across the arms that stopped him from standing,” and forbidden to remove his face mask for the duration of the interview.

Chinese officials occasionally claimed Yang had confessed to being a spy, but he refuted those claims every time, even when threatened with execution.

“I am innocent. This is political persecution. I want to go to court. I was worried that Chinese authorities would make such claims when there can be no media coverage. They cannot create rumours like this. I did not confess to anything criminal,” he said in one of the messages he was allowed to send from detention.

Yang reiterated his defiance in his Christmas 2020 message to family, friends, and supporters, as reported by Australia’s ABC News on Tuesday:

“As Christmas and New Year approaches, I miss you more and more,” Dr Yang told supporters back home in Australia. “I met you in a dream several times. It seemed so real. I regretted having had to wake up. I wanted to pull you out of the dream and hug you tightly.”

[…]

Despite his ordeal, the 55-year-old Australian citizen has assured relatives he is “stronger than ever” and that he still has “some confidence in the court.”

“I think they will give me justice — whether or not they judge me guilty will say a lot about whether the court is governed by rule of law or by pure absolute power,” he said.

Yang said he has suffered “torture, more than 300 interrogations, and a lot of verbal abuse.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry insisted on Wednesday that Yang has not been abused and his case is being handled in accordance with the law.

“We have stated China’s position on the case of Yang Jun many times. The case is now in the process of first instance trial. In China, a country with rule of law, judicial authorities handle cases independently. Yang Jun’s lawful rights are fully protected. The alleged ‘torture’ and ‘abuse’ is simply non-existent,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

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