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story.lead_photo.caption Australian writer Yang Hengjun and his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, are shown in an undated photo. China has charged Yang as a spy.

SYDNEY -- Yang Hengjun, a well-known Australian writer and democracy activist detained by the Chinese authorities in January, has been formally charged with spying, Australian officials said Tuesday, intensifying tensions over Beijing's treatment of its critics.

Yang's lawyer, Rob Stary, said his client had been charged with "a single act of espionage," but that no details were provided about the allegation -- nor which country he is accused of spying for.

Australia's foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the Australian government was "very concerned and disappointed" by the charge.

"Dr. Yang has been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months," Payne said in a statement. "Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr. Yang's detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits."

China's treatment of Yang, whose work includes writing fiction and essays, has escalated tensions between Australia and China at a time when the United States has stepped up pressure on Australia to take a stronger stance against Beijing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Sydney and argued that China's increasingly aggressive behavior worldwide required greater attention and push-back.

Yang worked for China's Foreign Ministry before setting out on his own as a novelist and commentator, moving to Hong Kong, the United States, and finally Australia, where he studied for a doctorate and became an Australian citizen in 2002.

After migrating, he remained an influential voice in China with a large Internet following. He has used his online presence to offer lectures, current affairs commentaries, advice on migration to Western countries and to sell health supplements.

While he has often stayed within the bounds of official acceptance, he has also issued barbed critiques of how China works, often in playful tones.

"I'm like an old auntie jabbering on, always promoting democracy and repeating its benefits," he wrote in an article in 2014. "Dictatorship is always torn down in one night, but good democracy isn't built in one night."

Critics say that even as he cast himself as an independent voice, Yang went out of his way to soothe the Chinese government. Before his detention in January, he spent two years with his family in New York, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

He was detained in January after arriving in Guangzhou, China, on a flight from New York. Officials say his family has not been allowed to visit in the seven months he has been held.

At a news conference Tuesday in Beijing, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that Yang had been formally arrested in a spying case. He also warned Australia not to get involved.

"China is a country of rule of law," Geng said. "Australia should truly respect Chinese legal sovereignty, and not in any way meddle in China's handling of the case according to the law."

Friends and scholars familiar with Yang's work expressed anger at his formal arrest.

"This case reeks of politics, and political payback," said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow with the Lowy Institute and former China correspondent. "Yang is someone who has been able to come and go from China despite his relationship with the dissident community. It is very difficult to see how he suddenly fits the profile of a spy."

Feng Chongyi, a China scholar who was Yang's doctorate adviser at the University of Technology, Sydney, said he was saddened by the charges, but not surprised.

"Communist China continues to show its ugly face to the world," he said. "I hope Australia, Canada, the U.S. and other democracies around the world will form a strong coalition to deal with this monster."

A Section on 08/28/2019

Print Headline: China charges Australian with spying

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