China has sentenced a 78-year-old US citizen to life in prison for espionage, a court statement said today.

John Shing-wan Leung, an American passport holder and Hong Kong permanent resident, “was found guilty of espionage, sentenced to life imprisonment, deprived of political rights for life”, said the statement from the Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern city of Suzhou.

Suzhou authorities “took compulsory measures according to the law” against 78-year-old Leung in April 2021, it said, without specifying when he had been taken into custody.

The US embassy in Beijing did not immediately reply to an AFP request for comment.

The court statement provided no further details on the charges, and closed door trials are routine in China for sensitive cases.

Such heavy sentences are relatively rare for foreign citizens in China.

The jailing is likely to further damage relations with Washington, which are already severely strained.

Revised anti-espionage law

In April, China approved an amendment to its anti-espionage law, broadening its scope by widening the definition of spying and banning the transfer of any data related to what the authorities define as national security.

The same month authorities formally charged a prominent Chinese journalist with spying, more than a year after he was detained while having lunch with a Japanese diplomat, a media rights group said.

Dong Yuyu, a senior columnist at the Communist Party newspaper Guangming Daily, was detained in February 2022 along with the diplomat at a Beijing restaurant, according to a statement issued by his family and seen by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The diplomat was released after a few hours of questioning, the Japanese foreign ministry said last year.

In February a Japanese man was sentenced to 12 years in prison in China for espionage, according to Kyodo News.

Several high profile cases of foreigners being detained have damaged ties between China and Western countries over the last few years.

In 2019, Chinese-born Australian writer Yang Jun was arrested on allegations of spying.

Australia called last week for another one of its nationals — jailed journalist Cheng Lei — to be reunited with her family after 1,000 days in detention.

She was accused of “supplying state secrets overseas”.

Days after the arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in 2018, China detained two Canadians—former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.

Beijing was accused of using the two men in a bout of “hostage diplomacy” to pressure Ottawa into releasing Meng.

The Canadian pair were set free hours after a deal was struck to release Meng. — AFP

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