US citizen sentenced to life in prison for espionage - Chinese court

BEIJING (Reuters) -A 78-year-old U.S. citizen and Hong Kong resident was on Monday convicted of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in eastern China, a court statement said.

John Shing-wan Leung was also stripped of his political rights after a brief trial on Monday, the Suzhou Intermediate People's Court said in the statement.

The court added that Leung was a Hong Kong resident and a U.S. passport holder.

The court gave no specifics of his alleged offence, but said: "Suzhou's National Security Bureau began investigating Leung on April 15, 2021, on suspicion of spying."

A U.S. embassy spokesperson said in an emailed statement in response to Reuters that it was aware of the case, but due to privacy considerations had no further comment.

"The Department of State has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas," the spokesperson added.

The sentencing comes amid growing tensions between China and the U.S. on a number of fronts, from accusations of Chinese spying and human rights abuses, to U.S. efforts to build up military alliances to curb China's ambitions toward Taiwan and in the Pacific.

Last week, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met China's top diplomat Wang Yi to try to keep open channels of communication and to stablise the relationship between the superpowers.

Hong Kong and Chinese media outlets reported that Leung had once been a senior member of a Chinese patriotic group in the United States called the U.S.-China Friendship Promotion Association. Pictures were published of Leung with some senior Chinese officials.

Leung was also mentioned in an article carried on the website of the U.S.-China Friendship Association, another pro-China group, voicing support for Hong Kong's national security law that China had imposed on the financial hub in 2020 to restore stability after pro-democracy protests.

Hong Kong's Security Bureau gave no immediate response to a Reuters request for comment on Leung.

(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Tom Hogue, William Maclean)