China on Monday sentenced a 78-year-old US citizen to life in prison on espionage charges, a case reflecting the deteriorating ties between Beijing and Washington in recent years.
Details of the charges against John Shing-Wan Leung, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, have not been made public.
Leung was arrested by the local office of China’s counterintelligence service in the southeastern city of Suzhou on April 15, 2021, according to a press release from the city’s Intermediate Court on its social media page. His detention came as China closed its borders and imposed strict domestic travel restrictions and social controls to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Such investigations and trials take place behind closed doors, and little information is released other than vague allegations of infiltration, secret-collecting, and threats to state security.
Washington-Beijing relations are at their lowest in decades amid disputes over trade, technology and human rights and China’s increasingly aggressive stance on its territorial claims involving self-governing Taiwan and the South China Sea. High-level government visits have been suspended and US companies are postponing major investments amid mixed messages from Beijing.
The sentencing comes as President Joe Biden travels to Hiroshima, Japan, for the Group of Seven Summit, followed by a visit to Papua New Guinea, a Pacific island nation in a region where China has sought to expand its economic, military and military presence to increase diplomatic influence.
Following Beijing’s regional successes, the US and its Asia-Pacific partners increased their regional presence, offering investments and financial support that rivaled China’s.
China is now the second largest economy in the world and is expanding its presence in ports, railways and other infrastructure from Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond.
While the Suzhou court offered no evidence linking it to overall China-US relations, the espionage allegations are highly selective and no evidence is released. This is standard practice in most countries that want to protect their personal connections, networks and access to information.
However, China’s authoritarian political system and the ruling Communist Party’s absolute control over legal affairs, civil society and freedom of information prevent demands for more information and court appeals.
The US embassy initially did not comment on Leung’s detention. The government of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997, also remained silent on the case.
When handed back to China, Hong Kong was promised to keep its financial, social and political freedoms, but Beijing has essentially nullified that commitment since it cracked down on pro-democracy protesters and enacted a sweeping national security law in 2020.
Chinese national security agencies have also raided the offices of foreign business consulting firms in Beijing and other cities as part of their ongoing crackdown on foreign companies providing sensitive economic data.
Foreign companies operating in China are coming under increasing pressure as Xi Jinping’s government tightens control over the economy. This stands in stark contrast to efforts to lure back foreign investors after the draconian restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic were lifted earlier in the year.
Long pre-trial detentions are not uncommon in China, and prosecutors have broad powers to hold suspects in national security cases, regardless of citizenship status.
Two Chinese-Australian nationals, Cheng Lei, who used to work for China’s state broadcaster, and writer Yang Jun, have been held since 2020 and 2019 respectively, with no word on their conviction.
The government’s suspicions are particularly directed at Chinese-born foreign nationals, as well as people from Taiwan and Hong Kong, especially if they have political contacts or are employed in academia or publishing.
Under Xi, the party has launched multiple campaigns against what it calls foreign efforts to sabotage its rule without providing any evidence. Universities have been ordered to censor discussions of human rights, modern Chinese history and ideas that might raise questions about the Communist Party’s total control.
Xi’s government has also taken a hard line on foreign relations, most recently ordering a Canadian diplomat in retaliation for the expulsion of a Chinese embassy employee in Ottawa who was accused of threatening a member of Canada’s parliament and his Hong Kong-based family members.
That fits with Xi’s confrontational global stance, in which China is working with Russia and accusing the West of provoking Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and seeking to overthrow US-led liberal dominance in global affairs.