Australians ‘shocked’ at death sentence imposed on Yang Hengjun, Penny Wong tells Chinese counterpart

<span>Australian foreign affairs minister Penny Wong (right) shakes hands with China's foreign minister Wang Yi in Canberra on Wednesday. Wong raised the case of Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who has been detained in China since 2019.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Australian foreign affairs minister Penny Wong (right) shakes hands with China's foreign minister Wang Yi in Canberra on Wednesday. Wong raised the case of Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who has been detained in China since 2019.Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has told her visiting Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that Australians are “shocked” at the suspended death sentence imposed on the writer Dr Yang Hengjun.

Wong raised the Australian citizen’s case – along with human rights more broadly – during a meeting that was largely aimed at stabilising the previously turbulent relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner.

Acknowledging “important differences” between the two countries that would have to be navigated “wisely”, Wong said Anthony Albanese looked forward to welcoming the Chinese premier, Li Qiang, to visit Australia later this year.

Related: Australian academic Yang Hengjun given suspended death sentence by Chinese court

Wong also confirmed that “we’re on a good path” for two giant pandas to remain at Adelaide zoo. “And I did say to the foreign minister my children would be very pleased,” Wong, a South Australian senator, told reporters after the meeting.

The meeting began with carefully phrased opening remarks from each foreign affairs minister which stressed the importance of dialogue in getting the diplomatic relationship back on track.

Wong, who travelled to Beijing in December 2022, said she was “very pleased to return the courtesy” and to host Wang for the pair’s sixth face-to-face meeting.

Pointedly, however, Wong told the visiting minister that she would speak frankly about “Australians detained in China, human rights, maritime security and safety, and regional and international issues such as the Pacific, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East”.

China froze high-level dialogue with Australia for more than two years from 2020 at the height of the diplomatic rupture with the Morrison government over the latter’s call for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

“As foreign minister, I have emphasised that it is in all of our interests to commit to preventive architecture to reduce the risk of conflict and that communication never be withheld as punishment or offered as a reward,” Wong said at the start of the meeting at Parliament House on Wednesday.

“As you know, dialogue enables us to manage our differences; we both know it does not eliminate them. Australia will always be Australia and China will always be China.”

Speaking second, Wang said that the Chinese government valued moves to strengthen “strategic communication”. He said that every time he met with Wong “our mutual trust is built upon further”.

“It is a positive progress of dispelling doubts and boosting trust, and I hope that this sound interaction can continue further,” Wang said in the opening remarks.

A source familiar with the meeting said the ministers had build up a “good rapport” with each other and were “direct” in expressing their views. It is understood there were “no surprises” during the meeting.

After the meeting, only the Australian foreign affairs minister fronted the media to answer questions. Wong confirmed she had pressed for the removal of remaining trade impediments affecting Australian wine, beef and lobster exports to China.

The Australian government hopes the Chinese commerce ministry will remove punishingly high tariffs on wine by the end of March, in line with an interim decision last week.

Related: How two giant pandas loaned to Adelaide zoo tell the story of the ups and downs of China-Australia relations

Wong raised the case of Yang, the Australian writer who has been detained in China since 2019. Yang was last month handed a suspended death sentence over espionage accusations that he denies.

“I told the foreign minister Australians were shocked at the sentence imposed and I made clear to him the Australian government will continue to advocate on Dr Yang’s behalf,” Wong said at the media conference after the meeting on Wednesday.

“I raised Australia’s concerns about human rights, including in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. I expressed our concern, our serious concern about unsafe conduct at sea, our desire for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and in our region.”

More than 100 people rallied on the lawn out the front of Parliament House to protest against Wang’s visit, chanting “human rights not for sale”.

“My core message to the Australian government is that it’s high time they take tangible actions,” said the president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, Ramila Chanisheff.

“We are sick of words, we’re sick of empathy, we’re sick of concerns without tangible actions.”

A representative of the Tibetan community, Tsewang Thupten, said Australia should use its Magnitsky-style sanctions laws against Chinese government officials implicated in human rights abuses.

“Our community acknowledges the foreign minister has met us and heard us, but in some ways that deepens the disappointment and the insult that we feel in the government rolling out the red carpet for Wang Yi,” he said.