Australian journalist Cheng Lei faces China spying trial

Cheng, who worked for state broadcaster CGTN, has been in detention since 2020 amid worsening Australia-China relations.

Cheng Lei, in a green sleeveless top, out and about in Beijing in 2020
Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing on August 12, 2020. Journalist groups renewed calls for the release of Cheng on the eve of her trial in Beijing on espionage charges [File: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

Australian journalist Cheng Lei has gone on trial in a heavily-guarded Beijing court on spying charges after being detained for more than 19 months.

Cheng, who was a leading business news presenter on Chinese state broadcaster CGTN when she was detained in August 2020, was formally arrested a year ago on suspicion of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas“.

The closed-door hearing at the No 2 People’s Intermediate Court in Beijing got underway at about 9.30 am (01:30 GMT) on Thursday morning and is expected to last for a few hours.

Further details of the charges against her are unknown, but the mother of two could face a sentence of up to life imprisonment if found guilty.

Security outside the court was tight with uniformed police and plain-clothed officers on duty. Police taped off areas close to the north entrance of the court and also checked journalists’ identification and asked them to move away, according to the Reuters news agency.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne had asked that Australian diplomats be allowed to attend Cheng’s hearing in line with a consular agreement between the two nations, but Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher told journalists he had not been allowed into the court.

Describing the decision as “deeply concerning”, he added: “We have no confidence in the validity of a process that is conducted in secret.”

Australian officials have had regular visits with Cheng, and last saw her on March 21. The country has previously expressed concern over Cheng’s treatment, and what it says is a “lack of transparency” over the case.

In a joint statement, Australia’s Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the International Federation of Journalists, the Australian National Press Club and its United States counterpart said Cheng was being held on “dubious charges that have yet to be substantiated with any evidence”.

“We have urged the Chinese government to show compassion by allowing her to return to Australia and we condemn her arbitrary detention and the secretive trial process she has endured,” the statement said.

China’s courts convict about 99 percent of defendants.

“Her two children and elderly parents miss her immensely and sincerely hope to reunite with her as soon as possible,” Cheng’s family said in a statement provided to Reuters.

Other foreign nationals charged with spying have been tried behind closed doors, including Australian blogger and writer Yang Hengjun, and Canadian former diplomat Michael Kovrig who appeared in the same court.

Cheng was detained amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Australia and China, and as Beijing raided the homes of Chinese state media journalists as part of an investigation into alleged foreign interference.

Cheng was born in China and moved with her parents to Australia as a child. After working as an accountant and financial analyst, she later returned to China and joined the state broadcaster in 2012.

People walk outside the imposing building of the No 2 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing
People walk outside the Beijing No 2 Intermediate People’s Court, where Australian journalist Cheng Lei is on trial on spying charges [Florence Lo/Reuters]

Diplomatic relations between Australia and China remain tense after Canberra urged an international investigation into the source of COVID-19, accused Beijing of meddling in its domestic politics, and blocked some Chinese investments. Beijing has responded with trade embargoes on key Australian exports.

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 the presenter’s detention, Chinese authorities also detained Bloomberg News employee Haze Fan, a Chinese citizen, on allegations of endangering national security.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies