(New York, NY) — Chinese-Australian novelist Yang Hengjun has been formally charged with espionage, a distressing indication that Chinese authorities intend to pursue criminal charges against one of Beijing’s critics. The charges against him come amid growing concern that Yang has been abused while in detention, in an effort to coerce a confession.  

“From the very beginning, at every turn, the Chinese government’s treatment of Yang Hengjun has been marked by an almost-complete disregard for international law and for the rule of law,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “Now that he has been charged, we have virtually no confidence that Yang will be given a fair trial. The international community must unite in demanding that Beijing respect Yang’s human rights, including his right to a fair trial that comports with international standards and his right to be free from torture and abuse while detained. But the interests of justice demand more—that Chinese authorities instead drop these charges and allow Yang to return home. They have offered no evidence that this criminal case is anything other than what it appears to be—a pretext to lock up yet another vocal critic of the CCP.”

Yang, an Australian novelist, scholar, and pro-democracy commentator, was detained while on a trip to visit family in China in January 2019. Chinese officials have accused the author of “espionage” but have not provided any evidence to back up their claim. In March 2020, reports indicated that officers from the government’s State Security Bureau were preparing to indict him. PEN America concluded then that “If Yang is charged, it is a virtual certainty he will be convicted, given that the conviction rate for criminal charges in China is commonly above 99 percent.”

According to Yang’s lawyer, Yang was told on October 7 that he had been formally charged with five enumerated crimes, although the lawyer was not allowed to share further details. While the specific enumerated charges are not known, they are understood to be related to the government’s accusations of espionage.  Public reporting indicates that a judge will soon be appointed to his case.

During his detention, Yang has been cut off from the outside world, with severely limited consular assistance. He was reportedly only granted access to his lawyer last month, despite having been detained for almost two years. In a recent message conveyed to his family and supporters, Yang denied the accusations against him and stated that he believes he has been targeted for his politics. His wife has also shared that Yang says he has suffered “mental maltreatment” during his detention, amid growing concerns that Yang is being subjected to torture while detained in an effort to coerce his confession. Yang himself reportedly told consular officials that he has endured more than 300 interrogation sessions during his detention.

PEN America, along with other human rights groups, has documented how China’s de facto criminalization of critical political speech has made it the world’s biggest jailer of writers. In its Freedom to Write Index 2019, PEN America noted that China contains 73 out of the 238 cases of writers and public intellectuals identified as being unjustly imprisoned or detained last year.