Yang Hengjun
The Australian government continues to advocate for imprisoned writer Yang Hengjun. Image by AP PHOTO
  • politics

Australian’s health ‘top priority’ after death sentence

Dominic Giannini February 15, 2024

A suspended death sentence imposed on an Australian writer in China will impact the bilateral relationship, the foreign minister says as officials maintain his health is a top priority.

The Australian government will continue to advocate for Yang Hengjun, who faces life in a Chinese prison at the end of a two-year suspended death sentence. 

About 200 representations have been made from the prime minister down about Dr Yang, who was imprisoned on secret national security charges more than five years ago.

“It is the case that decisions of this nature will have an impact on the relationship, this decision will inevitably reverberate for Australians who feel deeply about this tragic development,” Foreign Minister Penny Wong told a parliamentary hearing on Thursday.

Assertions that the decision would harm how the Chinese legal system was perceived and people-to-people ties were “unfortunately true”, she added.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong at Senate estimates in Canberra
 Senator Wong said the treatment of Yang Hengjuin would harm people-to-people ties with China. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTO 

The Australian embassy in China continues to advocate for Dr Yang’s health and access to medical treatment, with concerns about his deteriorating condition.

“We share the concerns of Dr Yang’s family regarding access to appropriate health care and his conditions in detention,” foreign affairs department assistant secretary Madeleine Casey said.

Embassy officials meet with Dr Yang monthly, the last visit being on February 6 with “focus on his health and welfare being a top priority”.

A legal appeal remains open to the Australian writer but international law experts have cast doubt on its prospects of success with the sentence rarely being overturned. 

Trade Minister Don Farrell is expected to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao on the sidelines of a World Trade Organisation forum in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month.

It is routine for ministers to raise the plight of detained Australians with Chinese counterparts, and Senator Farrell’s meeting is set to be the first face-to-face ministerial engagement since the sentencing.

Foreign affairs department secretary Jan Adams hauled in China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, to express Australia’s dismay as soon as the decision was announced.

DFAT Secretary Jan Adams at Senate Estimates
 Foreign affairs secretary Jan Adams says Australia will continue to advocate for Dr Yang’s welfare. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

“We will use all channels of communication to advocate for Dr Yang’s interests and indeed our broader national interests,” she said.

China maintains the case was in accordance with its legal system.

Human rights groups have raised concerns about the legal system’s transparency, the secretive trial and the harshness of the penalty.

Gordon Ng also remains in prison in Hong Kong after being charged under a wide-ranging national security law.

Consular officials have not been granted consular access as the dual Chinese-citizen didn’t enter the Chinese special administrative region with his Australian passport.

The government didn’t have an update on the pro-democracy activist’s case but “we have been able to make representations to relevant authorities,” Ms Casey said.

The foreign minister was also pushed on Thursday about the government’s response to human rights abuses by China in Tibet, with Greens senator Janet Rice questioning why targeted sanctions had not been used.

Sanctions were not the only diplomatic tool, Senator Wong replied. 

“We look at the full range of tools available, they include diplomacy and dialogue, working with other multilateral forums, legislation, public statements and, of course, sanctions,” she said.

“Sanctions are not our only choice and they are rarely our first choice.”

The foreign minister had consistently raised Tibet with Chinese counterparts and officials during meetings, Ms Adams added.