(New York, NY) – The announcement that Chinese authorities will charge Australian author Yang Hengjun with espionage is a chilling illustration of the abusive lengths the government will go to silence its critics, PEN America said today.

Those charges can carry the death penalty and came nearly eight months after Chinese officials initially detained Yang – an Australian author of Chinese origin – during a family visit to China. Experts have speculated that his detention may be linked to Australia’s decision to ban the purchase of telecom equipment from China’s Huawei.

“It is unclear whether Yang has been arrested because of his work as a blogger, or as a political bargaining chip with Australia. Either way, this charge of espionage is patently ridiculous,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “The Chinese government commonly accuses its critics of operating as agents of foreign powers, and it seems that in this case they are willing to bring serious criminal charges against Yang in pursuit of a false narrative. We urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release Yang Hengjun, and to allow him and his wife to leave the country.”

The conviction rate for criminal charges in China is commonly above 99%, and state actors’ use of torture and other coercive methods to obtain a confession is still widespread.

Yang, a prolific blogger and former visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, is best known for his spy thriller “Fatal Weakness” trilogy. While Yang has previously been critical of the Chinese government, he has reportedly tamped down such criticism in recent years. 

Other foreign citizens that the Chinese government has seized include Chinese-born Swedish poet and publisher Gui Minhai, who was kidnapped in Thailand by Chinese security agents in October 2015. More than three years later, Gui remains in state custody, despite reports of poor health. Late last year, Chinese authorities detained two Canadian citizens in the midst of an ongoing Chinese-Canada dispute stemming from Canadian police action against prominent Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou. 

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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