China jails American citizen formerly lauded as ‘overseas patriot’ for spying


Head of a U.S.-based overseas Chinese association with close ties to Beijing is jailed for life.

China jails American citizen formerly lauded as 'overseas patriot' for spying

John Leung is a member of a Beijing-backed overseas Chinese community group.

A Chinese court on Monday handed down a life sentence to a 78-year-old American citizen who headed a Beijing-backed overseas Chinese group, after finding him guilty of “espionage.”

The Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court court in the eastern province of Jiangsu sentenced Leung Shing-wan, also known as John Leung, to life imprisonment, as well as confiscating 500,000 yuan (US$72,000) of his assets, it said in a statement on its official social media accounts.

Leung is a member of a Beijing-backed overseas Chinese community group and has been photographed with high-ranking Communist Party officials. 

He has previously spoken out in public in support of a draconian national security law imposed on his birthplace, Hong Kong, all of which indicate a likely connection to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s secretive outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department.

His jailing shows that Beijing views him as having divided loyalties, and wants to send a warning to others among its supporters and officials who may have pro-U.S. sympathies despite ongoing bilateral tensions, analysts said.

At the time of his investigation by state security police, Leung was chairman of the U.S.-China Friendship Promotion Association and had been photographed with former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

United Front

Overseas Chinese associations that engage in official exchanges with Beijing form part of the Communist Party’s United Front activities beyond China’s borders, typically repeating the official line on major events, including denying the mass incarceration and suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

He was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying in May 2015 that the “one country, two systems” model used by China to roll back promised rights and freedoms in Hong Kong would also bring “prosperity and stability” to democratic Taiwan, a sovereign nation which rejects Beijing’s territory claims.

Leung was also widely quoted by state media during Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s 2015 trip to the United States, where he formed part of the welcoming party, while party newspaper the People’s Daily published a series of reports on Leung and his “patriotic deeds” in 2004.

Wu Chien-chung, associate professor at the National Taiwan Ocean University, said Leung’s sentencing comes after recent amendments to China’s Counter-Espionage Law which take effect on July 1, broadening the definition of espionage activities amid a series of raids on foreign-linked consultancy firms.

“They are very concerned that these agents may have trained themselves to become double agents,” Wu said. “They want this to have a chilling effect, like killing the chickens to frighten the monkeys.”

Absolute loyalty

Wu said even apparently loyal supporters of the Communist Party are in danger under the current crackdown.

“Beijing worries that some of its people could be taking orders from others, or only have low-level support for the regime,” he said. “It goes to show that, in the absence of any expression of absolute loyalty, or a background not entirely acceptable to Beijing or Xi Jinping, it’s still possible to be arrested, convicted and sentenced.”

Leung is a Hong Kong resident and a U.S. passport holder, according to the Suzhou court statement.

“Suzhou state security police began investigating Leung on April 15, 2021, for suspected espionage,” it said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson told Reuters it was aware of the case, but declined further comment.

“The Department of State has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the spokesperson said in an email to Reuters.

Sullivan meeting

Leung’s jailing comes days after U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi to try to keep open channels of communication and to stabilize the relationship between the superpowers.

Feng Chongyi, a professor of political science at the University of Technology Sydney, said the jailing of Leung likely has more to do with discouraging pro-U.S. sentiment among Beijing’s supporters than with sending a message to Washington, however.

“There are a lot of people who are quite pro-U.S. inside the regime, so they are picking on one who seems prominent, and locking him up to scare the others,” Feng said. “This was one of their own, someone they gave power and information to.”

“Then they disown him and lock him up to frighten the pro-U.S. faction, to silence them, and prevent them from challenging Xi Jinping,” he said.

Wu said today’s jailing of Leung along with the imprisonment of U.S. citizen Kai Li in 2016 and Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai in 2020 show that a foreign passport is no protection against investigation or sentencing by the Chinese authorities.

“Gui Minhai, owner of the [now-shuttered] Causeway Bay bookstore, is a Swedish national, but the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said it had jurisdiction because he was previously a Chinese national,” Wu said. “They don’t care about your nationality, nor about diplomatic or international etiquette.”

Wu said Chinese authorities have already targeted a number of foreign-owned or foreign-linked consultancy firms in recent months, raiding them under counter-espionage laws.

Zhuang Jiaying, associate professor of politics at Singapore’s National University, said overseas supporters of the Chinese Communist Party, people who operate as lobbyists for Beijing, make easy political targets for those in power

“Their loyalty is in doubt, not just in the country where they operate, but also back in China, because after all, they’re not Chinese nationals,” Zhuang said. “They face political pressure from both sides, and there is always going to be some risk when the [bilateral] relationship isn’t going well.”

Feeling ‘unsafe’

Zeng Jianyuan, who heads the overseas group New School for Democracy, said the details of Leung’s case are unlikely to be made publicly available, while the amendments to the counter-espionage law could mean a broader definition of spying is now also applied to the Chinese Communist Party’s supporters in the United Front system overseas.

“This information is regarded as of national importance, or top secret, so most people can’t access it,” Zeng said. “This makes everyone feel unsafe.”

British journalist-turned-investigator Peter Humphrey warned in March that growing Sino-U.S. tensions have “shattered” the hopes of families of American citizens detained by China for their exchange or release.

“They had been lobbying Blinken to raise their cases with China in the hope that the Chinese authorities might show a little mercy and allow early releases, prisoner swaps, or other gestures of goodwill for prisoners the U.S. government considers wrongly detained,” Humphrey wrote in a March commentary for Radio Free Asia.

Their hopes were shattered when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to China in protest over a Chinese spy balloon shot down over U.S. territory, he wrote.

“At no time since China began opening up at the end of the 1970s have relations been worse than now,” Humphrey said, adding that the situation now looks dire for “several thousand” foreigners in China’s jails.

He said U.S. citizen Kai Li was jailed in 2016 on “spurious espionage charges,” echoing Washington’s official view and calling on the United States to set up a bilateral prisoner transfer agreement with Beijing.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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