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Why did China detain an Australian journalist for over three years?


China-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who had been detained in China on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas for more than three years, returned home on Wednesday (October 11) after being released, according to Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“(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,” Albanese added.

Who is Cheng Lei? Why was she detained? How did the detention affect China-Australia relations?

Who is Cheng Lei?

Born in 1975 in Yueyang, Hunan province of China, Cheng emigrated to Melbourne with her parents at the age of 10. She went on to graduate from the University of Queensland with a commerce degree in 1995 and became a certified practising accountant.

In 2001, Cheng moved to China as a business analyst for a Sino-Australian joint venture in Shandong Province. Her journalism career, however, began the next year after China’s state-run English language TV station CGTN’s predecessor CCTV hired her to host television shows.

Festive offer

Subsequently, she worked as a journalist for the financial channel CNBC Asia in China and Singapore for about nine years. Later, Cheng returned to CGTN to host a business show.

She is a single mother and her two children live in Australia.

Why was Cheng Lei detained?

In August 2020, Cheng suddenly disappeared from Chinese television, and CGTN temporarily removed from its website information related to Cheng such as her profile. Cheng could not be contacted by friends or relatives.

China then announced that Cheng had been held on national security grounds and placed under “residential surveillance” at an undisclosed location, although there were no formal charges, and Cheng did not get access to a lawyer.

According to a 2021 report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Cheng had been locked in a cell without fresh air or natural light and had been interrogated multiple times. Authorities had also tightened restrictions on her ability to write letters and exercise, the report mentioned.

Six months after detention, Cheng was formally arrested and charged with “providing state secrets to foreign forces.”

Her trial began behind closed doors in Beijing in March 2022, where Australian diplomats were barred from entering, according to a report by The Washington Post. “The verdict was deferred and has not been made public since then,” it added.

Why has Cheng Lei been released now?

Cheng was detained at a time when Chinese-Australia relations were going through a turbulent period. The ties hit a new low after Australia asked for an independent global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 — in response, China imposed steep tariffs on imports of Australian barley, beef, wine and other goods.

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In the recent past, however, the tensions between the countries have simmered down. Not only has China removed the tariffs on barley and restrictions on coal and hay, but ministerial visits have also resumed, The Post reported. Moreover, Albanese is set to visit Beijing soon and would become the first Australian PM to go to China in seven years.

“This is clearly done ahead of a prime ministerial visit, which sends a pretty strong signal that Beijing wants that visit to be a success,” James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney told the newspaper.

“The timing of Cheng’s release suggested that politics was a factor in China’s handling of her case,” he added.





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