Sons of Australian Yang Hengjun ask for his release ahead of PM’s visit to China

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The sons of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, jailed in Beijing for four years on espionage charges, have written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese asking for a “second miracle” ahead of his China visit, after the release of journalist Cheng Lei.

Albanese travels to China on Saturday, the first visit by an Australian leader since 2016 as the trading partners stabilise ties after a diplomatic dispute. He meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday.

Pro-democracy blogger Yang is an Australian citizen born in China who was working in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019. His arrest coincided with a deterioration in relations between Australia and China.

A Beijing court heard Yang’s trial in secret in May 2021 and the case against him has never been publicly disclosed. He has denied working as a spy for Australia or the United States.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei returned home to Melbourne a fortnight ago, released after three years in jail in Beijing. Analysts said Cheng’s release was a “sweetener” ahead of Albanese’s visit.

In a letter dated Oct. 28 and seen by Reuters, Yang’s sons said they hoped Albanese can “achieve a second miracle by saving our father, who has now spent four years and nine months in detention”.

They urged Albanese to seek Yang’s release on medical grounds, after being told by consular officials who visited him last week that his health was declining and that he had collapsed several times. Friends had said Yang was suffering health problems since August.

“The risk of our father being left to die from medical neglect is clear to anyone who has read Wednesday’s consular report,” the letter to Albanese said.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday if the release of Cheng increased the chances of Yang being released, Albanese said: “Each case is different, but each case is important.”

China’s foreign ministry has previously said Yang was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities that endanger the national security of the PRC” and said Chinese judicial bodies were reviewing his case.

In the letter, Yang’s sons said their father had told consular officials last week he was “basically bedridden”, unable to walk for three weeks, and worried about the unknown cause of his illness, saying: “I’m sick, I’m weak, I’m dying”.

Responding to the letter, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a statement: “The Australian Government is deeply concerned by the deterioration of Dr Yang’s health, and we share the concerns of his friends and family about his welfare and medical condition.”

The sons, who live in Australia and declined to be named for privacy reasons, said they received the first letter Yang had been permitted to send them from detention on Oct.27.

They said Yang had not made a “confession” and said he was still innocent under Chinese law.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; editing by Miral Fahmy)