Australia criticizes China's espionage case against writer

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia on Wednesday criticized China for formally charging a Chinese Australian writer with espionage during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Yang Hengjun was taken into custody upon arriving in China from New York in January 2019 with his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, and his 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government “strongly objects” to news that China had formally charged the 54-year-old spy novelist and democracy advocate.

“Crises are a time for nations to pull together. It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr. Yang has not been acknowledged,” Payne said in a statement.

China had refused Australia consular access to Yang since Dec. 30 because of COVID-19 concerns. Australia had requested telephone or written contact instead but had been refused, Payne said.

“This is unacceptable treatment of an Australian citizen,” Payne said.

Yang’s poor health made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Australia has appealed for humanitarian considerations to apply to Yang’s situation, Payne said.

“We deeply regret that for over a year, our requests have not been taken up. Dr. Yang has had no access to legal representation and has been held in harsh conditions that have been detrimental to his physical and mental health,” Payne said.

Australia called for Yang’s immediate release and that he be allowed to leave China and travel to Australia with his wife.

“We have asked repeatedly that basic international standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment apply,” Payne said.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some analysts suspect Yang has been detained because of Chinese anger over Australian legislation passed by Parliament in 2018 that outlaws covert foreign interference in Australian politics and institutions.