Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who had been detained in China for over three years, has returned home to Australia. Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, made the announcement and noted that Cheng Lei was welcomed at the airport by Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
Cheng Lei, aged 48, was working as a business reporter for China’s state-run English language TV station, CGTN, when she was arrested on August 13, 2020. She was later accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” although the specific charges were never publicly disclosed.
This development comes as relations between Australia and China, which had soured during the pandemic, show signs of gradual improvement. Tensions between the two nations had led to a Chinese ban on Australian exports, including barley, coal, and timber. These restrictions were lifted earlier this year, marking an initial step toward mending diplomatic relations.
In response to Cheng Lei’s release, Prime Minister Albanese indicated that it would facilitate his planned visit to China at a “mutually agreed time” later this year. He further shared that Cheng Lei had been reunited with her two children in Melbourne.
Albanese acknowledged that her case had concluded through the legal processes in China.
After her arrest in China, Cheng Lei spent the first six months of her detention in solitary confinement without formal charges. In March of the following year, she was tried in secret in a Chinese court, a trial that Australian authorities were unable to witness. Her family was also kept in the dark about the charges she faced.
The Chinese Ministry of State Security announced that Cheng Lei was deported after serving a sentence of two years and 11 months. They stated that she had pleaded guilty to her charges. However, the exact date of her sentencing remains undisclosed. It is likely that the time she spent in detention before her trial is being counted toward her sentence.
Cheng Lei, born in China, immigrated with her family to Melbourne, Australia, at the age of 10. After returning to China, she joined CGTN in 2012.
Cheng Lei’s release follows her public statement last August in an open letter to the people of Australia, which was conveyed by diplomats who were allowed to communicate with her monthly. In the letter, she expressed her longing for the sun and the outdoors after years of confinement.
Some observers have accused China of using detained individuals as political leverage. The release of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained in China from 2018 to 2021 on charges of espionage, coincided with the dropping of a US extradition request for Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou. Beijing denied any connection between the two matters.
One other Australian, Yang Hengjun, remains imprisoned in China under national security charges, charged with espionage in August 2019 and tried in May 2021, but not yet formally sentenced.