Details of the charges against John Shing-Wan Leung have not been publicly released. Representation image. D-Keine/Gettyimages

In a case that illustrates the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington over the past several years, China sentenced a 78-year-old American citizen to life in prison on spying charges on Monday.

John Shing-Wan Leung, who has a permanent residence permit in Hong Kong, is facing accusations, although specifics of those charges have not been made public.

According to a news release published by Suzhou city's intermediate court on its social media page, Leung was arrested on Apr. 15, 2021, by the regional office of China's counterintelligence agency.

In order to stop the spread of COVID-19, China had already closed its borders, tightened domestic travel restrictions, and implemented social controls when he was detained.

Such investigations and prosecutions take place behind closed doors, with little information being disclosed other than general accusations of infiltration, intelligence collecting, and endangering state security.

As a result of disagreements over trade, technology, human rights, and China's increasingly aggressive stance toward its territorial claims regarding Taiwan's self-government and the South China Sea, relations between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest point in decades.

High-level government visits have been postponed, and U.S. companies are deferring significant investments due to Beijing's conflicting messages.

The sentence was handed down as U.S. President Joe Biden was en route to Hiroshima, Japan, for the summit of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations.

He would then visit Papua New Guinea, an island nation in the Pacific where China has been trying to expand its diplomatic, military, and economic influence.

Following Beijing's territorial gains, the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies increased their regional presence by providing investments and financial support that were competitive with those provided by China.

China, which is currently the second-largest economy in the world, is growing its infrastructure footprint in ports, railroads, and other areas from Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Although the Suzhou court made no mention of a connection to broader China-U.S. relations, spying accusations are quite selective, and the supporting documentation is withheld.

When a nation wants to secure its citizens' connections, networks, and information access, that is generally accepted practice, AP News reported.

However, the authoritarian political structure of China and the Communist Party's total control over the judicial system, civil society, and information freedom exclude calls for more information as well as legal appeals.

With regard to Leung's detention, the U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment. Neither did the administration of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong was promised that it would keep its financial, social, and political freedoms when it was transferred to Chinese rule, but Beijing has virtually reneged on that pledge ever since it cracked down on pro-democracy protestors and enacted a comprehensive national security law in 2020.

As part of an ongoing crackdown on foreign businesses that offer sensitive economic data, Chinese national security officials have also raided the offices of foreign business consulting firms in Beijing and other cities.

As Xi Jinping's administration tightens its control over the economy, pressure on foreign corporations doing business in China has increased.

That contrasts sharply with initiatives made to lure back foreign investors after severe COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were eased at the beginning of the year.

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