(New York, NY) – Reports that Chinese officials are preparing to indict Australian writer Yang Hengjun with espionage charges are a distressing indication that China intends to steamroll over objections from the Australian government and the international community in order to persecute one of its critics, PEN America said today.

Yang, a Chinese-born Australian writer and academic, was seized by Chinese authorities during a visit to the country in January 2019. Beijing has accused the author of “espionage,” but has provided no public evidence to back up its claim. Since his arrest, Yang has been in Chinese state custody. Yang’s wife, who had accompanied him on his 2019 trip, is barred from leaving China. Yang has reportedly been held in solitary confinement, has endured lengthy interrogations, and is believed to be in fragile health.

“Reports make it clear that Yang is being cruelly abused while in Chinese custody. Meanwhile, Beijing has offered not a single shred of evidence justifying Yang’s arrest. If Chinese authorities do indeed indict Yang, they will be steamrolling over the rule of law and international standards of justice,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression policy and research at PEN America. “The government’s treatment of Yang has been outrageous, from the very day that they first seized him, and this is the newest outrage. We reiterate our call for authorities to release Yang, to drop all charges against him, and to allow him and his wife to return home in peace.”

PEN America has previously noted that “the Chinese government commonly accuses its critics of operating as agents of foreign powers.” 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.

A blogger, academic, and political commentator, Yang Hengjun is best known in literary circles for his “Fatal Weakness” trilogy of spy thrillers. Yang is also a former visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Other foreign citizens that the Chinese government has seized in the past few years include Chinese-born Swedish poet and publisher Gui Minhai, who was kidnapped in Thailand by Chinese security agents in October 2015. In February 2020, after more than four years in custody, Gui was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for “illegally providing intelligence,” apparently for sharing information with Swedish consular officials about his treatment. PEN America called the sentence “a wildly unjust punishment, based on absurd and politically motivated charges.”


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892