China sentenced a 78-year-old United States citizen to life in prison Monday on spying charges, in a case that reflects the deterioration in ties between Beijing and Washington over recent years.
Details of the charges against John Shing-Wan Leung, who holds permanent residency in Hong Kong, have not been publicly released.
Leung was detained April 15, 2021, by the local bureau of China’s counterintelligence agency in the southeastern city of Suzhou, according to a news release posted by the city’s intermediate court on its social media site. His detention came as China had closed its borders and imposed tight domestic travel restrictions and social controls to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Such investigations and trials are held behind closed doors and little information is released other than vague accusations of infiltration, gathering secrets and threatening state security.
Relations between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest in decades amid disputes over trade, technology, human rights and China’s increasingly aggressive approach toward its territorial claims involving self-governing Taiwan and the South China Sea. High-level government visits have been on hold and U.S. companies are delaying major investments amid mixed-messaging from Beijing.
The sentencing comes as U.S. President Joe Biden is traveling to Hiroshima, Japan, for the Group of Seven major industrial nations summit, followed by a visit to Papua New Guinea, a Pacific island nation in a region where China has sought to increase its economic, military and diplomatic influence. After Beijing’s gains in the area, the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific partners stepped up their regional presence, offering investments and financial support rivaling those furnished by China.
Now the world’s second-largest economy, China is expanding its footprint in ports, railways and other infrastructure from Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond.
While the Suzhou court offered no indication of a tie to overall China-U.S. relations, spying charges are highly selective and evidence backing them up is not released. That is standard practice among most countries, who wish to secure their personal connections, networks and access to information.
However, China’s authoritarian political system and the ruling Communist Party’s absolute control over legal matters, civil society and freedom of information forestalls demands for further information, as well as court appeals.
The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment on Leung’s detention. The government of Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997, also had no word on the case.
When it was handed over to Chinese control, Hong Kong was promised it would retain its financial, social and political liberties, but Beijing has essentially scuttled that commitment since cracking down on pro-democracy protesters and imposing 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 an ongoing crackdown on foreign businesses that provide sensitive economic data.
Foreign companies operating in China have come under increasing pressure as Xi Jinping’s government tightens control over the economy. That stands in stark contrast to efforts to lure back foreign investors after draconian COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted at the beginning of the year.