Chinese activist’s death sentence shatters Sino-Australian accord

Photo courtesy of The Straits Times

Hopes of a swift reconciliation between Australia and China were shattered on Monday when a Beijing court handed down a death sentence to Australian citizen Yang Hengjun, a prominent pro-democracy activist and writer born in China.

The court’s verdict, on February 5, which found Yang guilty of espionage, stunned Australia, especially considering the recent release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei in October last year after three years in prison. The decision to impose the death penalty on Yang, coupled with his suspended verdict conditional on his conduct, delivered a severe blow to Canberra’s efforts to mend ties with China.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese responded to the verdict, vowing to continue making strong representations on Yang’s behalf.

“We have conveyed our outrage at this verdict.”

The fallout from Yang’s sentence was immediate. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade summoned China’s Ambassador to Australia for an explanation, signalling the gravity of the situation. Prime Minister Albanese remained tight-lipped about the future of Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s invitation to visit Australia, emphasising a direct approach to diplomatic dealings.

The imprisonment of Yang in 2019 had already strained bilateral relations, exacerbated by Australia’s decisions such as blocking Huawei from its 5G network and enacting legislation to counter foreign interference. Despite initial signals of rapprochement following Albanese’s election, Yang’s sentencing casts a shadow of doubt over the trajectory of Australian-Chinese relations, reported Asia News Network.

Analysts, including Dr Feng Chongyi from the University of Technology, Sydney, suggest that Beijing’s ultimate goal is to assert dominance over Australia while maintaining the appearance of stability. Meanwhile, experts like Richard McGregor highlight the increasing assertiveness of China’s Ministry of State Security, evident in Yang’s case.

Reflecting on the situation, McGregor aptly summed up the current state of affairs.

“The Albanese government has built a floor over the relationship but there is also a ceiling, and a pretty low one at that.”

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Puntid Tantivangphaisal

Originally from Hong Kong, Puntid moved to Bangkok in 2020 to pursue further studies in translation. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong. Puntid spent 8 years living in Manchester, UK. Before joining The Thaiger, Puntid has been a freelance translator for 2 years. In her free time, she enjoys swimming and listening to music, as well as writing short fiction and poetry.

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