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China: writer Yang Hengjun handed suspended death sentence following deeply flawed trial

February 06, 2024 IN WIP
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China: writer Yang Hengjun handed suspended death sentence following deeply flawed trial

PEN International joins the undersigned PEN Centres in condemning the handing down of a suspended death to Australian writer Yang Hengjun, five years after he was detained and accused of espionage. The sentence will result in Yang spending the rest of his life in prison unless he can make a successful appeal.

On 5 February 2024, reports emerged that Yang Hengjun had been given a suspended death sentence by a local court in China. The sentencing takes place over two and a half years after his trial took place behind closed doors, raising significant concerns regarding Yang Hengjun’s right to a fair trial and the principle of judicial transparency. The court’s judgement was delayed on numerous occasions, compounding the injustice that Yang has been subjected to.

This is a shocking, unacceptable outcome of a flawed, opaque judicial process in which a writer has been denied his basic human rights of representation and a fair trial. We stand in solidarity with Yang Hengjun and call on the PRC government to end its assault on freedom of expression.” said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

There are grave concerns for his health and ability to receive adequate healthcare while detained. He has a large cyst on his kidney and has been kept in solitary confinement for large parts of his time in prison.

In light of the serious procedural issues surrounding his trial and the unsubstantiated allegations made against him, we call on the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to quash Yang Hengjun’s conviction and for his immediate and unconditional release. We also call on the Australian authorities to petition more forcefully for his release.


  •         PEN International
  •         Independent Chinese PEN Centre
  •         PEN Melbourne
  •         PEN Perth
  •         PEN Sydney



Yang Hengjun is an Australian novelist, scholar and political commentator who is committed to the advancement of human rights and greater freedoms in China. His trilogy of spy novels, known as the Fatal Weakness series, is centred on the fictional escapades of a double agent working for both the US and PRC government intelligence agencies. The series is reportedly banned in the PRC but has been shared widely online among Chinese diasporas.

His blog posts have garnered a significant following on Chinese social media, and dozens of his articles were later translated into English and published on The Diplomat. Common themes in his writing are the virtues of democratic values, the need for greater understanding between China and the United States, and his personal awakening to the problematic aspects of autocratic rule, earning him the nickname ‘Democracy Peddler’ among his followers.

In January 2019, Yang reportedly flew with his wife and child from the United States to China where he was then detained by the PRC government’s security services. 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 Yang was reportedly tortured. In August 2019 Yang was formally arrested on suspicion of espionage without any evidence supporting the charge disclosed to his family or consular representatives.

Throughout his over two years of pre-trial detention, Yang was denied family visits and was granted limited access to legal counsel and consular visits. He was reportedly subjected to over 300 interrogations and his request for the dismissal of testimony he gave under torture was denied by the PRC government.

On 27 May 2021, Yang’s trial was held behind closed doors and reportedly lasted less than seven hours, with his consular representatives denied the ability to attend, a breach of both the Vienna Convention and the Australia-China bilateral consular agreement.

Prior to the commencement of his trial, Yang Hengjun shared his hope that he would be able to continue writing ‘to help China to understand the world’ in a message he had transcribed while detained. When considering the trial’s potential outcome, Yang Hengjun said:

‘If worse comes to worst, if someone wants to take revenge on me for my writings, please explain to the people inside China what I did, and the significance of my writing to people in China. The values and beliefs which we shared, and which I shared with my readers, are something bigger than myself.’

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International