Australian Yang Hengjun’s death sentence is a warning shot to anyone who wants to challenge China

Australian Yang Hengjun’s death sentence is a warning shot to anyone who wants to challenge China

Originally published in The Guardian

On this page

The exceptional harshness of the verdict reflects the rising power of the Ministry of State Security


The death sentence handed to Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen and pro-democracy activist, by a Beijing court has naturally focused attention on what the verdict means for bilateral ties with Canberra.

A more interesting question, however, might set the lens wider, and ask what message the verdict on Monday was designed to send, not just to Australia, but to anyone at home or abroad critical of China’s ruling Communist party.

The answer to that question lies in the serious charge of espionage that was levelled against Yang, and the rising power of the Ministry of State Security which is increasingly weaponising those laws.

Yang was given a death sentence with a creative Chinese twist – it was suspended for two years so long as if he didn’t commit any further offences for two years from solitary confinement in prison.

For Australians, the verdict was particularly jarring in the wake of the euphoria surrounding the release of Cheng Lei, the Chinese Australian journalist, in October, 2023.

Cheng’s release was the symbolic high point of improving Sino-Australian relations, something that Anthony Albanese’s government has pointed to as a signature foreign policy achievement.

Yang’s verdict, which means he will almost certainly die in prison, will have the opposite effect on bilateral ties, and the government has few options to alleviate the fallout.

Australian governments, Coalition and Labor alike, had advocated for Cheng and Yang in tandem in recent years, although both administrations in Canberra always sensed the cases were distinct.

Cheng was detained in August 2020, at a time when the Australia and Chinese governments were locked in a deep bilateral conflict over a range of political issues, including the handling of Covid-19.

Yang had been detained almost a year earlier, after he arrived in China from the US, but before bilateral relations with Australia, though tense, had completely tanked.

Unlike Cheng, who was an English-language journalist with state television, Yang was once a player in China’s deep state, where he had close ties with the foreign ministry and the security services.

In other words, Cheng was clearly targeted as political payback for Australia, whereas Yang had a whole other set of enemies within the system, irrespective of his citizenship and passport.

Therein lies part of the explanation for the harsher treatment that has been meted out to Yang.

But the real explanation for the exceptional harshness of the suspended death sentence may lie in the changing character of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s top internal security agency.

Once intensely secretive, the MSS has lifted its profile under Xi Jinping, especially over the last year when it started blasting its hardline opinions out on social media accounts under its own name.

“Since then, it has boldly asserted itself not only on espionage matters,” wrote Hong Kong-based journalist Wang Xiangwei last week in the South China Morning Post, “but also on national and international topical issues ranging from China-US relations to economic subjects, including one in which it warned against badmouthing China’s economic growth prospects.”

On the one hand, the MSS is likely largely indifferent to the deleterious impact Yang’s verdict will have on relations with Australia. But it is also possible to imagine that state security deliberately demanded the harshest sentence possible as a warning to pro-democracy activists that they are risking their lives.

It is also worth remembering that Yang was charged with espionage, a crime the MSS, with Xi’s approval, has been toughening and expanding.

Under the revised anti-espionage law which came into effect last July, the scope of the law was widened. The practical impact was immediate, with foreign consultancy and due diligence firms in China raided by the authorities.

Yang’s suspended death sentence was at the harshest end of expectations of the Australian government and the writer’s family and supporters.

At the very best, they had hoped that he would be sentenced to four to five years, which he had already served in detention. He could then have been released and deported on medical grounds.

The death sentence, as shocking as it may have been, however, was right in line with the MSS’s new profile and its regular missives on social media.

Doubtless, the MSS hopes that anyone who wants to challenge China is paying attention.


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.