Monday, May 16, 2022

Australian journalist to stand trial in China on state secrets charges

Cheng – a former anchor on Beijing's state broadcaster CGTN – has been detained since August 2020 and in February last year was formally arrested for 'illegally supplying state secrets overseas'.

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Australian journalist Cheng Lei will face trial in China on Thursday after 18 months in detention on charges of supplying state secrets, in a case that has sent relations between Beijing and Canberra plummeting.

Cheng – a former anchor on Beijing’s state broadcaster CGTN – has been detained since August 2020 and in February last year was formally arrested for “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”.

She will appear at a Beijing court on Thursday morning for what is expected to be a closed-door trial.

Further details of the charges against her are not known.

But the mother-of-two could face a sentence of up to life imprisonment if deemed to have committed serious violations of China’s national security laws.

Concerns have swirled in Canberra over her welfare and detention conditions, with foreign minister Marise Payne urging China to meet “basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment… in accordance with international norms”.

Payne also said Australian officials had asked to attend the hearing and confirmed that representatives had been able to meet with Cheng as recently as Monday.

Born in central China’s Hunan province, Cheng emigrated to Australia as a child and later acquired citizenship of her adoptive country – likely ditching her Chinese passport as Beijing does not permit its citizens to hold dual nationality.

After returning to China and joining the state broadcaster in 2012, she became a familiar face on CGTN and hosted interviews with noted CEOs from around the world.

Cheng’s detention came as relations between Australia and China plunged to their lowest level in years.

Beijing has lashed out at Australia’s use of foreign interference laws to block Chinese investment in sensitive sectors and examine Chinese influence on the country’s public life.

Canberra’s repeated calls for an independent enquiry into the origins of Covid-19 – which first emerged in China over two years ago – has also raised Beijing’s hackles.

Weeks before she disappeared, Australian authorities raided the homes of Chinese state media journalists as part of a foreign interference probe.

The timing of Cheng’s detention and the lack of clarity about the charges against her led to speculation that her detention was politically motivated or tit-for-tat retaliation.

Two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, later fled China after being questioned about Cheng.

Months after her detention, Chinese authorities also detained Bloomberg News employee Haze Fan – a Chinese citizen – on allegations of endangering national security.

Another Chinese-born Australian, writer Yang Jun, has been accused by Beijing of espionage and is facing a trial that started last year behind closed doors.

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