SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 23, 2019

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Columbia University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 23, 2019, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Yang Hengjun, a prominent writer and former Chinese official currently serving as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, in apparent retaliation for his writings criticizing the Chinese government.

Yang worked for the Chinese foreign ministry until 2000, when he emigrated to Australia, where he became an established writer and citizen journalist. He has lived in New York and worked as a visiting scholar at Columbia University for the past two years. On January 18, Yang flew from New York to Guangzhou, but was prevented from boarding his connecting flight to Shanghai with his family. After suspicions that Yang had disappeared, on the 23rd, Chinese authorities informed the Australian Embassy in Beijing that they had detained Yang. The following day, the Chinese foreign ministry announced that Yang had been detained for “engaging in criminal activities that endanger China’s national security.”

Feng Chongyi, a friend of Yang’s and professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, in Australia, who was barred from leaving China by authorities in 2017 (see report), released a letter Yang had written after a previous arrest by Chinese authorities, in 2011. In the letter,  Yang advocates for democracy, freedom, human rights, and justice in China, and writes “If I cannot come out or disappear again, remember my articles and let your children read them.” It is not clear as of this report whether or to what extent Yang has been given access to family and legal counsel.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities must refrain from restricting or otherwise interfering in the nonviolent exercise of such rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On July 18, 2019, it was reported that authorities charged Yang with “endangering state security.” If convicted, he could be sentenced to at least three years imprisonment.

UPDATE: On August 27, 2019, media sources reported that Yang had been formally arrested on August 23 and charged with “espionage,” which could result in more than ten years imprisonment.

UPDATE: On March 25, 2020, it was reported that Chinese authorities were preparing to formally indict Yang with “espionage.” The same reports also indicated that Yang had been kept in solitary confinement for months with his ankles and wrists shackled, and that he had been subjected to repeated interrogations and ill-treatment, including being forced to sit in a crouched position from 7am to midnight. Yang has reportedly lost 10kg, suffers from blood pressure issues, and has had difficulty walking. If convicted of espionage, Yang could face capital punishment.

UPDATE: On February 5, 2024, it was reported that a Chinese court gave Hengjun a suspended death sentence on charges of espionage. The sentence includes a two-year reprieve which permits the death sentence to be commuted to either 25 years or life in prison after two years of good behavior by the detainee.