Cheng Lei: Australian TV host faces trial in China for alleged delivery of state secrets abroad

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Cheng Lei, a former business anchor of China’s state broadcaster CGTN, has been charged with illegally providing state secrets abroad, on a charge that carries a possible jail sentence of five years to life.
A heavy security presence, including uniformed police and plainclothes security personnel, were outside the No. 2 People’s Intermediate Court in Beijing, where Cheng was due to be tried Thursday morning, Reuters reported. Police, who had cordoned off areas close to the court’s northern entrance, checked the identity cards of journalists and asked them to leave.

Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne said Canberra had been informed that Cheng would stand trial on Thursday, but it is unclear whether China has approved its request for Australian officials to attend the hearing. Cases related to national security are usually tried behind closed doors in China.

Cheng has been in custody since August 2020 and observers have expressed concern about the secret trial. Payne says Cheng has had regular access to Australian consular officials, who last saw her on March 21.

Chinese authorities have not released details about the charges against Cheng, but the country has a conviction rate of nearly 100%, meaning it was “almost set in stone” that a guilty verdict will be handed down, said Elena Collinson, a senior investigator. at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute.
The Australian ambassador to China was denied access to the espionage trial against Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, who is still in custody last year.
The Australian government says it regularly raises issues with Beijing over Cheng’s detention, but Chinese authorities say the judiciary is handling cases in accordance with the law.

The lack of transparency on the case and the background to deteriorating relations between China and Australia has raised concerns that the matter could be political.

“Even taking into account circumstances where the case brought against her has some substance, it’s just very hard to believe that the tensions between Australia and China have in no way affected or factored into this case,” said Collinson.

“It is very possible that the number of years of the sentence will be adjusted to send out some political message,” she said. “(The verdict) will only fuel the already acute mistrust that many Australians feel about Beijing.”

Details of the charges against Cheng Lei have not been released.

The woman in the middle of the case

Before her detention, Cheng worked as a business anchor at CGTN, the international arm of the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. Cheng previously worked for the US financial news network CNBC and in her spare time was active in the Australian community in Beijing.

In the months after Cheng was detained, her friends said they were in shock.

“I don’t think she would have done anything intentionally to harm national security,” Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece and the family’s spokeswoman, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) last year. “We don’t know if she just got caught up in something she didn’t realize herself.”
Cheng’s two children are being cared for by their grandmother in Melbourne, the ABC reported – and according to a statement from the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, of which Cheng is a member, Cheng has not been able to talk to her children since. she was arrested.

In a statement Wednesday, Cheng’s family said: “Her two children and elderly parents miss her greatly and sincerely hope to reunite with her as soon as possible.”

Why Cheng was detained?

Analysts say the tense political climate between China and Australia appears to have played a role in Cheng’s detention and arrest.

Relations between the two countries had been frosty for years but deteriorated rapidly after April 2020, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China called Morrison’s proposal “political manipulation” and targeted Australia for trade, slashing products with tariffs and blocking acquisitions by Australian companies.

Shortly after Cheng was detained, two Australian journalists working in China fled the country after authorities attempted to question them on national security grounds, leaving the Australian media without journalists in China for the first time in nearly 50 years.

“There is no transparency, the outside world has no idea what the person actually did,” said Yaqiu Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, referring to Cheng. “All we know is that this happened in the context of heightened tensions between the two countries — and the fact that the Chinese government has a history of leveraging and misusing those cases for political ends.”

China celebrates Meng Wanzhou's return as a victory – even at the cost of its global image
In 2021, China released Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were jailed for three years on charges of espionage. They were detained on a US warrant shortly after the arrest of Huawei chief executive Meng Wanzhou in connection with the company’s business dealings in Iran.
The two Canadians were released after the US Department of Justice and Meng reached an agreement to postpone the prosecution of the US charges against her until the end of 2022, after which the charges could be dropped. China consistently denied that the cases were related in any way.

“This all happened in the context of heightened tensions between the West and China,” Wang said. “Any foreign nationals working in China can be leveraged by the Chinese government for political purposes.”

A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Australian embassy in Beijing, China, September 2020.

What happens now

In the 19 months since Cheng was detained, relations between Australia and China have not improved.

Australia is taking a more “confrontational stance” when it comes to China, Wang said.

In September 2021, Australia announced it was entering a new security agreement with the US and the UK, which some experts say unnecessarily antagonized China. And in December, Australia — along with other countries — announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics over human rights violations and issues in Xinjiang.
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But Australia goes a national elections, and while a change in government probably won’t change China’s policy, it could clear the air, Collinson said.

“That could pave the way for — if not a reset — a softening of this very sharp friction between the two countries.”

It is not clear what a reset of bilateral relations would mean for Cheng, who remains isolated from her support networks and separated from her family.

“She has two young children that she hasn’t seen in years,” Collinson says said. “It’s all well and good to talk at a high level about political tensions and their consequences, but in terms of their spillover, there are some very real consequences and severe penalties that normal people have to pay.”

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