A Chinese-born Australian writer detained by authorities in Beijing for suspected espionage has long been a divisive figure among overseas Chinese dissidents and activists.

To his supporters, Yang Hengjun is a dedicated democracy activist who believed that China's autocratic system would, with time, necessarily liberalize. His detractors say he had long since abandoned criticizing the Communist Party in favor of protecting his personal and business interests.

Yang, 53, whose legal name is Yang Jun, was detained in southern China's Guangzhou while waiting for a transfer to Shanghai in January after flying in from New York.