The Chinese government has formally arrested Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who worked for state-broadcaster CGTN, alleging that she illegally shared state secrets. The news was announced by the Australian government on Monday, more than six months after Cheng was detained in August 2020. Since then, Cheng has been held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), a kind of detention that has been classified by U.N. human rights experts as a type of “enforced disappearance” under conditions that could constitute torture.
Financial Times’ Yuan Yang and Jamie Smyth reported on the Australian government’s announcement on Monday:
Cheng was a newsreader for China’s state-owned China Global Television Network. She is the second high-profile Australian to be detained by Beijing in recent years, after writer Yang Hengjun was also held and charged with espionage in 2019.
“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” said Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign affairs minister.
The Australian government said embassy officials had visited Cheng six times since her detention. A six-month detention is common for foreign prisoners held on national security charges. [Source]
Cheng is an Australian citizen and a single mother, and had earlier last year temporarily sent her two children from Beijing back to Australia amid China’s initial coronavirus outbreak. The Guardian’s Daniel Hurst reported on comments from her family members:
“I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” [Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece and a spokeswoman for the family] said on Monday night. “We don’t know if she’s just been caught up in something that she herself didn’t realise.”
Wen said Cheng’s children, aged nine and 11, were currently living with their grandmother in Melbourne.
“Grandma is in her mid-70s and looking after the two by herself, especially over the Covid period last year … it hasn’t exactly been very easy on her,” she said.
Wen said she hoped the Australian government could do more for her aunt. She also called on the Chinese government to show more compassion and to remember Cheng was “a mother with two young kids, who really need her, and we’d love her to come home as soon as possible”. [Source]
Relations between China and Australia have worsened precipitously over the last year, after the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China. Since March, Australia has been pummeled with trade restrictions by Beijing, including restrictions on a wide variety of food products and Australian coal, of which China has historically been a major buyer. In September 2020, several Australian journalists were also forced to flee from China amid worsening relations after they were held and questioned by Chinese investigators about Cheng Lei. But, The New York Times’ Chris Buckley reported on comments from one expert who said that Cheng’s arrest was unlikely to be directly related to the bilateral relationship:
“I don’t think it is about the bilateral relationship, though that doesn’t help her cause,” Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to Beijing who has written about the deterioration of relations, said of Ms. Cheng’s arrest. China’s definition of state secrets was very broad, he said, adding, “Acquittals are infrequent in such cases.”
[…] Before Ms. Cheng’s case, another Australian of Chinese heritage, Yang Hengjun, faced spying charges in China. Mr. Yang, a writer and businessman also known as Yang Jun, has been held in China since early 2019, and last year was indicted on espionage charges.
[…] Haze Fan, a Chinese staff member of Bloomberg News in Beijing, was detained in the Chinese capital in December under suspicion of “criminal activities that jeopardize national security,” according to Bloomberg [Source]
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC News)’s Bill Birtles reported that the apparent friendship between Cheng and Haze Fan, a Bloomberg News researcher who was detained in December 2020, suggested that Cheng’s arrest might have to do with domestic political issues:
But a second arrest late last year has cast doubt on the idea that the case is purely related to diplomatic tension with Australia.
In December, Cheng Lei’s close friend Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist in Beijing working for American outlet Bloomberg, was also taken away in what authorities say is a national security investigation.
Geoff Raby, a businessman and former Australian ambassador to Beijing, says the case could well be related to domestic political issues in China rather than being related to tense ties with Australia.
“The reality is because we don’t have high level official contact between Australia and China, the foreign minister and the prime minister are not able, as in the normal course of events, to make high level representations to the Chinese government on behalf of Cheng Lei,” he said. [Source]
Australian @CGTNOfficial anchor Cheng Lei’s access to writing materials and exercise in detention have recently been restricted by guards. She’s been held without fresh air or natural light, & hasn’t been allowed to speak on phone to her 2 kids in Melbourne. Her words from 2019: pic.twitter.com/12xJEEL1yj
— Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) February 8, 2021
Cheng’s detention in August 2020 had raised eyebrows particularly because she was an employed by China’s central state television broadcaster in a prominent role, as an anchor for its business news program. Evidence of her work with CGTN was systematically scrubbed from the network’s website and social media after she was detained.
In September 2020, human rights observers warned that Cheng was at risk of torture by Chinese authorities amid her detention under China’s RSDL program. The Guardian’s Helen Davidson reported on rights experts’ concerns that her detention conditions amounted to solitary confinement:
The coercive custody allows the ministry of public security and the ministry of state security to circumvent ordinary criminal law processes and hold subjects in undisclosed locations without formal arrest, charge, trial, or access to a lawyer, for up to six months.
RSDLs can not use existing places of detention, so instead special purpose facilities have been constructed, sometimes repurposed guesthouses and motels are used. Inside, detainees are held in suicide-proofed rooms in effective solitary confinement.
[…] Peter Dahlin, director of human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders, told the Guardian the average length of detention in RSDL was about 30 days but for high profile targets – like Cheng – it rose to about 120 days.
“The UN has classified solitary confinement – if it is during investigation stage and lasting more than two weeks – to be torture,” Dahlin said. [Source]
Since August, Cheng’s detention conditions have worsened–guards have reportedly tightened restrictions on her ability to write letters and exercise. The Washington Post’s Gerry Shih reported that despite her arrest, formal charges and a likely eventual conviction could mean that Cheng remains in detention for much longer:
Chinese prosecutors are legally allowed to hold suspects at undisclosed locations for six months while they build a case. Their next likely step would be to formally level charges against Cheng and proceed to trial, which could be months away.
The prosecutors almost always obtain convictions in court once they decide to formally arrest an individual and bring national security charges, which can be broadly defined. [Source]