Friends and family of Australian television anchor Cheng Lei renewed calls for her release from detention in China, 1,000 days after she was taken into custody on espionage charges – a move that has cast a black mark on the two countries’ already tense relationship.
Cheng, a former business anchor for China’s state broadcaster CGTN and mother of two, is accused of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, a charge that carries a possible sentence of between five years to life in prison.
Australian authorities have previously expressed concern about her detention amid suggestions from analysts that strained ties between Canberra and Beijing may have provided impetus for the opaque case against her.
Relations between the two countries have thawed in recent months, with trade increasing and a new Australian government in place. But Cheng’s prolonged detention is a “critical issue” holding back further reconciliation, Nick Coyle, Cheng’s partner, told CNN on Tuesday.
“The ongoing delay, the ongoing situation, causes enormous damage not only to Lei and her two children, but I think it’s also causing a lot of damage in terms of the efforts by both China and Australia to repair the bilateral relationship,” said Coyle.
He added that people in Australia and around the world view her detention with “a lot of negative sentiment,” and that “it would be in everyone’s best interest for it to be resolved as quickly as possible.”
Cheng had been on her way to work on the morning of August 13, 2020, when she “was taken by China’s Ministry of State Security,” Coyle said in a separate letter published in The Australian newspaper on Monday.
“Now 1,000 days later, we still don’t know why she was taken, why she was charged with deliberately vague national security breaches or when she might be with us again,” he wrote.
Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny Wong also released a statement on Monday, writing on Twitter: “Despite being separated from her family for so long, she has shown great resilience and courage. All Australians want to see her reunited with her children.”
Wong added that the ministry shared the concerns of Cheng’s friends and family about “the ongoing delays in her case,” and that it would continue advocating for Cheng “at every opportunity with the Chinese government.”
Secretive court process
Chinese authorities have not revealed details of the allegations against Cheng, which Coyle told CNN Tuesday “makes no sense to me.”
“She’s somebody who’s a deeply passionate Australian, but also very proud of her Chinese heritage,” he said. He added that as a journalist, Cheng had been reporting on “the positive aspects of the China growth story” and China’s business engagement with the world. She was “making a very positive contribution in that context – so it has never made sense to me why she was detained,” he said.
Observers have also criticized China’s secretive, closed-door court process.
In March last year, Australia’s ambassador to China was denied entry to the start of Cheng’s trial in Beijing, a move he called “deeply concerning.” The court has not yet handed down a verdict, delaying the announcement multiple times – leaving Cheng stuck in custody, and her loved ones without clarity on her fate.
Cases related to national security are typically tried behind closed doors in China. But the lack of transparency in Cheng’s case against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between China and Australia prompted concerns from analysts that the charges may be politically motivated.
Soon after Cheng was detained, two Australian journalists working in China fled the country after authorities attempted to question them on national security grounds, leaving Australia’s media without any journalists in China for the first time in nearly 50 years.
While there were still some Australian journalists working in China, all are employed by non-Australian media companies.
For much of Cheng’s detention, there were widespread concerns about her wellbeing. Last June, Coyle told CNN affiliate Sky News Australia that Cheng had faced “difficult health challenges along the way,” exacerbated by an inadequate prison diet.
In his letter published Monday, Coyle described Cheng spending six months cut off from the outside world, limited to those consular visits, which began every month with Cheng “being led in, blindfolded and handcuffed.” Since then, she has been placed with other cellmates and given access to an outdoor courtyard for two hours a day, he wrote.
When speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Coyle said Cheng was allowed to receive and send letters once a month – but other than that, she has had no face-to-face contact or phone calls with loved ones including her children, aged 11 and 14, who are being cared for in Australia by their grandmother. Coyle is not their father.
“The most difficult issue for her to deal with is the long time that she’s been away from her children,” said Coyle. “Physically she’s going okay, and mentally she’s very tough, very strong, very resilient.”