After over three years in detention in China, journalist Cheng Lei has been released and has returned to Australia. Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, announced her release and stated that she was met at the airport by Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
Cheng Lei, 48, worked as a business reporter for China’s state-run English-language TV station CGTN when she was arrested on August 13, 2020. She was subsequently accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” although her charges were never made public.
Cheng Lei’s release comes at a time when relations between Canberra and Beijing appear to be improving. Tensions between the two countries escalated during the pandemic, resulting in a Chinese ban on Australian exports such as barley, coal, and timber. However, these restrictions were lifted earlier this year, signaling a gradual improvement in diplomatic relations.
Prime Minister Albanese expressed that Cheng Lei’s release would facilitate his visit to China at a “mutually agreed time” later this year. He also confirmed that Cheng Lei has been reunited with her two children in Melbourne.
“Her return brings an end to a very difficult few years for her family. The government has been seeking this for a long period of time, and her return will be warmly welcomed not just by her family and friends but by all Australians,” said Mr. Albanese, who had spoken to Cheng Lei over the phone earlier on the same day.
He noted that her case “was concluded through the legal processes in China.” Following her arrest in China, Cheng Lei spent the first six months of her detention in solitary confinement without being formally charged. Last March, she was secretly tried in a Chinese court, with neither Australia’s ambassador nor her family informed of the charges she faced.
On Wednesday, China’s Ministry of State Security stated that Cheng Lei was deported after serving a sentence of two years and 11 months. It was added that she had pleaded guilty to her charges. However, Beijing did not disclose when she was sentenced. It is likely that the time she spent in detention before her trial in early 2022 is being counted toward her sentence.
Born in China, Cheng Lei migrated with her family to Melbourne, Australia, when she was 10 to allow her father to pursue a PhD program. She later returned to China and joined CGTN in 2012. In August, she publicly discussed her imprisonment for the first time in an open letter to the people of Australia, which was relayed through a group of diplomats who were able to speak with her on a monthly basis.
Critics have accused China of using prisoners as political leverage, notably in the cases of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained in China between 2018 and 2021 on charges of espionage. They were released shortly after the US dropped its extradition request for Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, although Beijing denied any connection between the two matters. Another Australian, Yang Hengjun, remains imprisoned in China under national security charges, having been charged with espionage in August 2019 and tried in May 2021, with no formal sentence announced.