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PEN Perth is based at the Centre for Stories at 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge. If you would like more information about PEN Perth please contact us at info@penperth.org


© PEN PERTH 2021

The Case of the Australian Writer in Chinese Prison

Tuesday 9 August 2021

It might surprise many of out readers to learn that an Australian writer, blogger and academic, has been held in China since January 2019, charged with espionage, and pronounced guilty after a brief and perfunctory trial in a closed courtroom.

PEN International remains deeply concerned about Yang Hengjun, particularly as his sentence is still pending, two months after his trial on 27 may 2021. China continues to execute people for espionage. And a harsh sentence remains a strong possibility in this case.

According to some reports Yang Hengjun had a promising career in the Chinese Foreign Affairs Department, until he moved to Hongkong and then to Australia in 1999.  He became popular as the ‘democracy peddler’ in the early 2000s and garnered a large following with blogs dealing with sensitive issues including Chinese occupation of Tibet.

In recent years, he had become more cautious in his commentary, and was more involved in business activities and writing spy novels. At the time of his detention, he had been living in New York for nearly two years as a visiting scholar at Columbia university.

In January 2019, Yang reportedly flew with his wife and child from New York to China and was arrested at Guangzhou airport while waiting for a connecting flight.  He was initially held at a secret location for six months in a notorious form of extrajudicial detention called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location, where he appears to have been tortured in a bid to get a confession. In August 2019 he was formally arrested on charges of espionage. At no point have his family or the Australian government been informed of any further details or evidence for the charges. Yang Hengjun and the Australian government have strenuously denied that he spied for Australia.

Coming as it did, at a time of rising tensions between the Chinese and Australian government, Australian consular support for Dr Hengjun has been inadequate. Australian officials were denied access to the court during his trial in a breach of both the Vienna Convention and the Australia-China bilateral consular agreement.

A number of PEN Centres, including PEN Perth are continuing to monitor this case. And we welcome all ideas and information that might enable us to understand better and act in support of Yang Hengjun and his family.

In the meantime you can...

Take Action by:
  • Sending an appeal to the Chinese authorities
  • Telling others: share Yang’s case and his work via Twitter (see below)

In your letter request that the authorities:
  • Release Yang Hengjun immediately and unconditionally.
  • Allow Yang Hengjun’s family to leave the PRC without any restrictions.
  • Provide Yang Hengjun with unrestricted access to legal representatives of his choosing and to representatives of the Australian government.
  • End all policies that contravene the PRC government’s international human rights obligations.

Write to:
1. President Xi Jinping
General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China.
Address: General Secretary Office, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Zhongnanhai Ximen, Fuyou Street, Xicheng District, Beijing 100017
People’s Republic of China
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mfa_china

2. Ambassador CHENG Jingye
Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Commonwealth of Australia
Address: 15 Coronation Drive, Yarralumla, ACT 2600, Australia.
Email: chinaemb_au@mfa.gov.cn
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/China…

3. Ambassador ZHANG Jun
Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations.
Address: 350 East 35th Street, New York, NY 10016, USA.
Email: chinamissionun@gmail.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/chinaambun

Tell others: share Yang Hengjun’s case and his work on Twitter:
#YangHengjun’s detention is a breach of his right to freedom of expression. I call for his immediate and unconditional release.

2021 Chair’s Reflection

Monday 9 August 2021 — Robert Wood

As you all know, PEN Perth exists to support and strengthen the responsible freedom of expression. In the current historical moment, that matters more than ever.

At home, there are trials on defamation with Ben Roberts-Smith, Christian Porter and John Barilaro. Defamation is currently being weaponised by political figures to help silence dissent and avoid scrutiny. That issue has been covered by the media, but it also is cause for activist concern. It contributes to an atmosphere of fear that affects all citizens. It is a cop inside your head that tells you to be quiet when injustice is everywhere. That extends to Indigenous language sovereignty, fair access to education during lockdown, and to the rights of journalists to protect witnesses.

When we look beyond our shores, there are current concerns for our region, just like Chris Lin shared and there are concerns for our citizens. The former includes authoritarian regimes founded in violence that suppress freedom of expression. Many of whom have exploited the COVID situation to further entrench their power be that in Myanmar, India and Hong Kong. Australians are also caught up in this, most especially Yang Hengjun and Chau Van Kham, who both remain imprisoned in China and Vietnam respectively. We need to work for their freedom and secure their release just like we did for Kylie Moore-Gilbert and Peter Greste.

All of this leads to a reflection on what freedom of expression actually is. Many public opinion makers hide behind a false definition of this, use it as a way to kiss up and kick down, making vile, incendiary and inaccurate claims, especially against the marginalised. Freedom of expression does not mean you get to say what you want, especially not hate speech. It means respecting the rights and needs of others while speaking a truth for you, one that is grounded in reality and dialogue and data. To remember that freedom of expression is something to protect and enshrine also means being aware that it is something to be defined. It is a responsibility most of all.

Spotlight on Myanmar

Sunday 1 August 2021 — Chris Lin

PEN Perth hosted a Spotlight on Myanmar on 12th July at the Centre for Stories. The Spotlight lent focus to the ongoing civil crisis in Myanmar in the aftermath of the military coup in February. The panel consisted of: Dr Htwe Htwe Thein, an international business researcher; Dr Jie Chen, an Asia-Pacific scholar; and Ms Khin Thida Kyaw, an activist from the WA Myanmar Democratic Network. The conversation shed light on the political and economic impact on Myanmar’s people, the regional implications of the situation, and the response of the Burmese community in Perth.

Myanmar’s plight is the most brutal in recent memory. The military has committed mass atrocities against civilians since February. Over 4000 arrests and 800 deaths have been reported (Association of Political Prisoners, 2021). The United Nations estimates that over 6 million people are in urgent need of food aid. This crisis has further exacerbated the systematic dismantling of free expression. A widespread ban on independent news channels and the arrest of 86 journalists (Reporters without Borders, 2021) have stifled the media landscape and posed dangers to reporters. Writers and filmmakers have posed a special target—with reports of detention and torture—as the junta looks to crush those whose art has the power to inspire hope and rebellion.

PEN Perth strongly condemns the coup, the Myanmar military’s violence on civilians, and its persecution of journalists, artists, and writers in Myanmar. It calls upon the Australian government to adopt stronger actions against the Myanmar military and to work with other countries to exert pressure on the junta to restore civilian government.

Call to action to PEN Perth members:

  • Write to Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs) to call on the Australian government to take stronger action.

    Parliament Office
    PO Box 6100
    Senate, Parliament House
    Canberra ACT 2600

  • Write to Mr Tha Aung Nyun (Myanmar’s Ambassador to Australia) to protest against the actions of the Myanmar military

    Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
    22 Arkana Street, Yarralumla, ACT 2600


Wednesday 5 June 2019

As an organisation committed to defending responsible freedom of expression and protecting a free press, PEN Perth is deeply concerned about today’s Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters over a series of articles published in 2017 called ‘The Afghan Files’, as well as the raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home yesterday for her reporting on a separate case. [1] [2] 

‘The Afghan Files’ by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark reported upon ‘clandestine operations of Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan, including incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children.’[3] The raids on Smethurst’s home have been linked to a 2018 article which contained information suggesting Australia’s surveillance agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, was attempting to broaden its powers to spy on Australian citizens.[4]

Both of these targeted cases have exposed government security secrets and there are concerns that the policing of them relates to bipartisan espionage laws passed in June 2018. Passed by the Liberal government, and supported by the Labor opposition, these laws created criminal offences that can carry life sentences. They expanded the definition of “national security” to an extremely broad interpretation that included “economic and political relations” with other countries.[5]

PEN Perth is concerned by the government’s desire to undermine the Australian press’ reporting on decisions and processes made by the government, and their desire to suppress the Australian public’s right to know those decisions and processes, particularly through the pursuit and intimidation of whistleblowers. We believe that these raids present a threat to democracy.

We join a growing list of organisations who are distressed about these recent activities and we join with them in condemning the raids by the AFP. PEN Perth calls on the government to explain these threatening acts of intimidation directed toward journalists who are simply doing a job that is valuable for the whole of Australian society.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in a free society and has long been regarded as central to Australian values. More to come on this developing story…

For further details contact PEN Perth, 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge, WA, email: perthpen@gmail.com, web: penperth.org

[1] Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy, ABC The Conversation, 5 June 2019
[2] Lorna Knowles, Elise Worthington and Clare Blumer, ABC raid: AFP trawl through thousands of files over Afghan Files stories, ABC, 5 June 2019 [3] Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, The Afghan Files, ABC, 11 July 2017 [4] Amy Remeikis, Police raid on Annika Smethurst shows surveillance exposé hit a nerve, The Guardian, 5 June 2019
[5] Gareth Hutchens, Sweeping foreign interference and spying laws pass Senate, The Guardian, 29 June 2019

Additional references:  
— Samantha Maiden, Whistleblower at centre of ABC raid stands by Afghan leaks, The New Daily, 5 June 2019
— Bernard Keane,  The ‘national security’ lie exposed by the Smethurst raid, Crikey, 5 June 2019
— Peter Grest, The raid on the ABC shows we need a law to protect journalists and their sources, The Guardian, 6 June 2019— David Crowe, Press raids are proof Australians deserve more scrutiny of their government, not less, 5 June 2019
— Damien Cave, Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy, 5 June 2019
— Christopher Knaus, Federal police must split from Dutton ministry to save integrity, says union, 15 March 2019
— Australian Federal Police, AFP statement on activity in Canberra and Sydney, 5 June2019