Journalist detained in China for three years returns to Australia

A Chinese-Australian journalist who was convicted on espionage charges and detained in China for three years has returned to Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said.

Cheng Lei, 48, worked for the international department of China’s state broadcaster CCTV. She has been reunited with her two children in Melbourne, Mr Albanese said.

Her return comes ahead of Mr Albanese’s planned visit to Beijing this year on a date yet to be announced. He will become the first Australian prime minister to visit the Chinese capital in seven years.

Mr Albanese said Australia had traded nothing with China for Ms Cheng’s release.

“Her release follows the completion of judicial processes in China,” he said.

A court in Beijing convicted her of illegally providing state secrets abroad and she was sentenced to two years and 11 months, the statement said. She was deported on Wednesday after serving her sentence, presumably because she had already been detained for that long.

“Her return brings an end to a very difficult few years for Ms Cheng and her family,” Mr Albanese said.

“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.”

The FreeChengLei account on X, formerly known as Twitter, posted a photo of Ms Cheng with Australian foreign minister Penny Wong and Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

The post included a quote, apparently from Ms Cheng, that read: “Tight hugs, teary screams, holding my kids in the spring sunshine. Trees shimmy from the breeze. I can see the entirety of the sky now! Thank you Aussies.”

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese
Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese said Ms Cheng was ‘a very strong and resilient person’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Bilateral relations have improved since Mr Albanese’s centre-left Labour Party was elected after nine years of conservative rule. Beijing has lifted several official and unofficial trade barriers on Australian exports.

Mr Albanese’s reference to China’s judicial system suggested that Ms Cheng had recently been sentenced after she was convicted in a closed-court trial last year on national security charges.

Questioned by a reporter, Mr Albanese said China was not acknowledging through Ms Cheng’s release that she posed no threat or had been wrongfully detained.

“No, China would have not have said that that’s the position. China would say that the judicial processes have been completed in China,” Mr Albanese said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the Chinese judicial system tried the case “in accordance with the law, fully safeguarding the rights enjoyed by the person concerned in accordance with the law”.

Mr Albanese said he had spoken to Ms Cheng in Melbourne, where her children have been living with her mother, and that they had discussed a letter she had written to the Australian public in August to mark the third anniversary of her detention.

In the letter, she also described her living conditions in detention in China, saying she was allowed to stand in sunlight for just 10 hours a year.

“She is a very strong and resilient person … and when I spoke with her, she was delighted to be back in Melbourne,” Mr Albanese said.

Mr Albanese did not say whether Dr Yang was also likely to be released.

“We continue to advocate for Dr Yang’s interests, rights and well-being with the Chinese authorities at all levels,” Mr Albanese said.

Dr Yang, a 58-year-old writer and democracy blogger, told his family in August he feared he would die in a Beijing detention centre after being diagnosed with a kidney cyst, prompting supporters to demand his release for medical treatment.

Dr Yang has been detained in China since January 2019, when he arrived in Guangzhou from New York with his wife and teenage stepdaughter.

Dr Yang received a closed-door trial on an espionage charge in Beijing in May 2021 and is still awaiting a verdict.

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