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'Democracy Peddler’ still detained in China despite a lack of evidence

- Feng Chongyi

Australian authorities have reportedly been told to stop interfering in the case of the Chinese–Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who has been detained by the Chinese Government since January. 

Sealed off from the outside world, without access to legal counsel or visits by relatives, Yang says he has been subjected to intensive interrogations by Chinese authorities seeking confessions for alleged crimes. Yang claims this included torture over a six-month period. He describes being held in a guarded, windowless, continuously illuminated cell without release, being routinely deprived of sleep and being forced to kneel, stand and sit in a certain position for extensive periods of time. 

Yang has now been moved to a criminal detention centre on a broader charge of ‘endangering state security’ and has now been formally arrested for ‘suspected crimes of espionage’. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne says Yang is being detained for his political views and should be released. The Australian media union (MEAA), of which Yang is a member, has backed calls for his release. 

I have known Yang for many years – he is a former PhD student of mine – and I also believe his continuing detention is an injustice.

So, what has Yang done to elicit such lengthy detention and the extremes of torture? In a nutshell, Yang is a political dissident no longer tolerated by the Chinese communist regime. He is paying a heavy price as a long-standing critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Yang, aged 54, abandoned his career as a communist cadre to embrace freedom and democracy in his middle age. Yang’s career with the CCP first started in 1987, after he earned his first degree in politics from Fudan University in China. He was assigned to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a ministry connected to the Chinese secret police. However, Yang was eventually alienated by his job and developed instead a strong interest in literature. 

In 1999, Yang resigned from his post and moved to Australia with his wife and two sons to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. From 2002 to 2005, he published a trilogy of spy novels in print and online: Fatal Weakness, Fatal Weapon and Fatal Assassination. In these novels, Yang uses his own experiences and those of his colleagues to tell the soul-stirring stories of a China–US double agent who ultimately serves the agenda of neither side. Instead, the novel’s hero works for his own inspiration and conviction to serve the real interests of the people.

These novels did not bring Yang the fame and wealth he expected. They were published in Taiwan and banned in mainland China. An attempt to turn them into movies in Hong Kong also failed. 

At the end of 2005, Yang enrolled in a PhD in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. Under my supervision he started his journey as a liberal scholar. 

Yang’s 2009 PhD thesis, The Internet and China: the Impacts of Netizen Reporters and Bloggers on Democratisation in China, was a timely, in-depth analysis of the complicated information warfare between the internet and the CCP regime. As part of an experiment for this thesis, Yang started his own blog (available now only on and wrote commentaries on current affairs as a ‘citizen journalist’. 

Since then, Yang has published more than 10 million words of online articles on this theme, earning the nickname ‘democracy pedlar’ and a tremendous following in the Chinese speaking world.

Yang is that rare combination of a scholar well trained in both China and the West, with a firm belief in the universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. He chose to devote his talent and passion to online journalism in Chinese languages, hoping to accelerate China’s transformation toward constitutional democracy. 

Several collections of his online articles have been published in print to a wide audience, such as Family, State and the World (2010), Seeing the World with Black Eyes: The World in the Eyes of a Democracy Pedlar (2011), Talking about China (2014) and Keeping You Company in Your Life Journey (2014). 

Yang excels at explaining the profound in simple terms. He uses moving examples from everyday life to expose the social ills of communist autocracy and promote democratic values and institutions. In particular, he provides timely analysis on all sorts of events around the world and shows the stark contrast between the harsh reality and the official rhetoric of the CCP. 

Although he has maintained extensive connections with some Chinese human rights and democracy activists, Yang rarely engages in social activism. However, he has long been targeted by the Chinese security apparatus, who consider him one of the opinion leaders who has the capacity to mobilise nationwide social protests. In March 2011, they placed him in detention. He was quickly released back to Australia due to the international media campaign and the diplomatic pressure of a visit to China by the then Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. 

Following this, Yang has been more cautious in his advocacy. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to General Secretary of the CCP in 2012, Yang has adopted a soft strategy, packaging his advocacy for human rights and democracy in the disguise of publicising the ‘socialist core values’ promoted by the CCP. Yang new strategy prompted thousands of his followers to organise support groups via the social media app WeChat in more than 50 cities throughout China – even in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2015, where human rights and democracy activists were experiencing brutal repression. 

Again, in 2016, when the political environment turned from bad to worse and Yang’s blogs were shut down one by one, he closed down all of the WeChat groups and substantially scaled down his online writing. 

In 2017, Yang moved to New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University and pressure on him from the CCP seemed to relax. During this time, he travelled to China several times without molestation and Chinese authorities lifted the ban on several of his blogs toward the end of 2018. This gave him the impression that it was safe for him to visit China. 

But during his visit this January he was detained upon his arrival. 

Thousands of Yang’s supporters have been in despair, engaging in heated debates about his ordeal and its implications for political development in China. 

Ignoring the international norm of presumption of innocence, the CCP regime continues Yang’s arbitrary detention without trial. Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne have made it clear to Chinese authorities that Dr Yang Hengjun is not a spy for Australia. They have demanded his release. 

The continuing persecution and imprisonment of writer Yang Hengjun by Chinese authorities demonstrates contempt for international human rights standards. The Australian Government and public are obligated to challenge such practice by the CCP regime to safeguard the basic human rights of Australian citizens. The international community are also obligated to support this endeavour for human dignity and demand the immediate release of Yang. 


Feng Chongyi is associate professor in China Studies at University of Technology Sydney and his current research focusses on human rights lawyers in China and united front operations of the Chinese Communist Party in Australia.

This article first appeared in its original version in The Conversation (July 23, 2019) 

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