Cheng Lei, Australian journalist, is on trial by China

Almost 20 months after her detention in Beijing, an Australian journalist working for China’s global television network was on trial behind closed doors on Thursday on charges of sending state secrets abroad.

The Chinese authorities have not released the details of their allegations against journalist Cheng Lei, nor have her lawyers or family disclosed details. Australia’s Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, was barred from attending Ms Cheng’s trial at the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing.

“We cannot have confidence in the validity of a process being conducted in secret,” Mr Fletcher said after being refused entry.

Court officials pointed to Chinese restrictions on access to national security-related proceedings, but Mr Fletcher said Australia’s consular agreement with China should allow diplomats to attend any court proceedings held by an Australian citizen.

“We have no information on the charges or allegations against Ms. Cheng,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so concerned, because we have no basis to understand why she was detained.”

There was no immediate indication of how long Ms. Cheng’s trial would last. Many such processes are over in a day, with a later decision.

Chinese judges almost always find the accused guilty, particularly in politically sensitive cases such as national security. But Ms Cheng and her family, including a young son and daughter in Australia, may have to wait weeks, months or longer before a verdict is announced. Another Australian citizen, Yang Hengjun, was on trial in Beijing in May 2021 on espionage charges, but the court has yet to announce a decision on his case.

“Her two children and her elderly parents miss her greatly and sincerely hope to see her again as soon as possible,” Ms. Cheng’s family in Australia said in a written statement. “We will not be making any further comments at this time.”

The mystery surrounding Ms Cheng’s case has sparked speculation that she has been targeted over deteriorating China-Australia relations.

Despite their economic interdependence, the two countries have been at odds over regional security, Australia’s ban on using Chinese technology for 5G phone networks, and Australian legislation aimed at curbing China’s efforts to influence the country’s domestic politics.

China has frozen high-level government contacts with Australia and imposed informal sanctions on some of the country’s commodities, including wine and barley. Australia’s centre-right Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who faces an election within months, has accused opposition politicians of selling out to Beijing, something that has been rebuked by former and current Australian intelligence officials.

In June 2020, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization raided the homes of four Australian-based Chinese journalists. Two Australian journalists working in China rushed out a few months later after state security officers interrogated them, including about Ms. Cheng.

Ms Cheng’s friends have doubted she was jailed over these broader issues, although tensions now may weaken Australia’s hold over her fate.

As a business news anchor for CGTN, or China Global Television News, China’s top international broadcaster, she has presented herself as a bridge between the two countries and is not interested in gossiping about politics, said Rowan Callick, an Australian journalist formerly based in Beijing .

Ms. Cheng was arrested in mid-August 2020, and three and a half months later police in Beijing also arrested her friend Haze Fan, a Chinese contributor to Bloomberg News. Ms. Fan remains in secret.

“The arrest of Cheng Lei was an absolute shock,” said Mr. Callick. “She has been a popular host for Australian social and business events” in Beijing, he added. “She was never one to be interested in that kind of political gossip.”

Ms. Cheng, now in her 40s, was born in southern China’s Hunan province and immigrated to Australia with her parents when she was 10 years old. After working in Australia as an accountant and business analyst, she returned to China and switched to journalism, becoming a prominent face in the Chinese government’s growing international media presence.

Her Twitter profile called her a “passionate speaker of China history”.

But Ms Cheng appeared to take a more gloomy view of the Chinese government in 2020 after the Covid pandemic started in the city of Wuhan, leading to a lockdown there and tough restrictions in the rest of the country. In posts on Facebook, Ms. Cheng implied that official incompetence and secrecy led to the medical disaster.

“China’s size means it’s a giant sieve for personal tragedy to fall through,” she wrote in one post, “yet reality sometimes feels like a slow-motion horror film, death after death unfolding.” Cheng Lei, Australian journalist, is on trial by China

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