China Frees Detained Australian Journalist in Sign of Warming Ties


Australian journalist Cheng Lei has flown back to Melbourne after being released from about three years of detention in China, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, in a major sign of diplomatic warming after years of tensions.

Albanese said Wednesday he had spoken to the former detainee in Melbourne, and she had been reunited with her two children.

“Her return brings an end to a very difficult few years for Cheng and her family,” Albanese said at a news conference, describing the journalist as “strong and resilient.” Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong met Cheng at the airport, he added.

Relations between Beijing and Canberra have improved since the election of Albanese’s center-left Labor government in May 2022, including the restarting of high-level ministerial meetings and the ending of several export restrictions by Beijing. In November last year, Albanese met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meetings in Indonesia.

Australian companies are once again exporting coal to China and the two countries announced a deal aimed at getting rid of China’s tariffs on barley.

Albanese has said he plans to visit Beijing this year, though recent trips to Taiwan by Australian politicians may halt momentum for the better ties. On Wednesday, China expressed its disapproval to Australia over an ongoing visit to Taiwan by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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Speaking at the Asia Society event in Melbourne, Ambassador Xiao Qian said Morrison’s visit to Taiwan was a “serious concern” and hoped Australia’s politicians would be “sensitive” to China’s views.

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Australian writer Yang Hengjun remains in jail in China. Albanese said his government was continuing to advocate for him. Yang was taken into custody by Chinese authorities in 2019 and recently wrote to relatives and friends in Australia that he had fallen ill in prison.

Cheng was first detained in China in 2020 on espionage charges, and Canberra repeatedly called for her release. She was freed after the “completion of judicial processes in China,” Albanese said.

Cheng was arrested in early 2021 after authorities concluded she “conducted illegal activities on supplying state secrets overseas.” She was tried last March in a closed hearing but no verdict was ever publicly announced. Under China’s opaque legal system, authorities can hold someone indefinitely without releasing information.

Cheng’s detention happened at a time of worsening ties between Beijing and Canberra after Morrison’s government called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus. Her arrest sparked fears that Beijing had targeted the mother of two to exert pressure on Canberra.

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Cheng had hosted business shows on Chinese state media from 2012 and was well known among Beijing’s circle of diplomats and journalists. She previously served as China correspondent for CNBC after graduating from the University of Queensland with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and serving as an accountant at Cadbury Schweppes, according to a LinkedIn profile that is no longer online.

She was among several foreign nationals from countries with fraught political ties with Beijing who were detained on spy charges in recent years.

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China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in late 2018, just days after Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co., was detained in Canada in response to a U.S. extradition request. The two were released in September 2021 after Meng was allowed to leave Canada. A report by the official Xinhua News Agency said Chinese courts freed them on medical bail.

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