Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun at a lecture at the Beijing Institute of Technology in Beijing on November 18. 2010. Photo: AFP

The espionage case against detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun has reached a Beijing court, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said Monday, in a rare update on a man held incommunicado for months since his arrest last year.

The relationship between China and Australia has been perforated by spy scandals and trade rows, with both sides accusing the other of arresting citizens as diplomatic leverage.

Chinese-born Yang Jun – who also goes by the pen name Yang Hengjun – was taken into custody in January last year during a rare visit to China, prompting Australian government protests.

Beijing has to date said little about his fate, while Australia’s foreign minister has accused Chinese authorities of refusing Yang access to his family or lawyers and interrogating him while shackled.

On October 7, charges of “espionage” were filed against Yang and the case has been accepted by Beijing No 2 Intermediate People’s Court, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters on Monday.

“The relevant Chinese departments are strictly handling the case according to law, and are fully protecting all of Yang Jun’s legal rights,” he added.

The writer has denied the charges.

His lawyer Shang Baojun said Yang’s case had entered the court of first instance – but in China’s opaque legal system it does not mean his trial has started.

Yang is one of a string of foreign nationals to have been arrested in China on allegations of spying.

Australian Cheng Lei, an anchor for China’s English-language state broadcaster, has been held since at least August 14, but Australian diplomats say Beijing has given no reason for her detention.

Two other Australian reporters, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, fled China shortly after Cheng’s detention, also fearing arrest.

Australia has ramped up its rhetoric against China – its biggest export market – in recent months, outraging Beijing by leading global calls for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was in Tokyo last week for talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was seeking to cement the so-called “Quad” alliance with Asia-Pacific nations Japan, Australia and India as a diplomatic balance to China.

Payne spoke of the desire for a region “governed by rules, not power.”