Beijing holds closed-door trial for Australian journalist Cheng Lei after 19 months in detention

“The Australian Government respects the sovereignty of China’s legal system,” Payne said in the statement. “However, Ms. Cheng’s case has lacked transparency and the Australian Government has never been provided with details of the charges.”

Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, and other Australian diplomats attempted to attend the trial but were denied entry. In China, cases in which state secrets are invoked are often held behind closed doors, with few details released, and verdicts can be deferred for years.

Cheng’s case has prompted concern among foreigners working in China because of the haziness surrounding the circumstances of her detention. As an English-language TV anchor for state-run broadcaster CGTN, her work would have presented China in a favorable light.

Employees who answered the phones at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Thursday said they could not provide details on the case.

Asked about Cheng’s case on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the judiciary handles cases in accordance with the law. The ministry previously said she is suspected of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces” but has not disclosed further details.

Her case comes at a time of fraught relations between Australia and China, with the two governments clashing over military, trade and political issues.

An open letter signed by 55 friends and supporters called for Cheng’s release and said they were worried about her and her children, ages 10 and 12.

“We are confident she has done nothing wrong and hold grave concerns for her health, safety and care,” the letter said.

Emily Angwin, a former colleague at CGTN and fellow Australian, said Cheng’s detention sent shock waves through their friend circle and prompted Angwin’s own decision to leave China. She said Cheng is vivacious and intelligent, and brought both a Chinese and Western perspective to her TV program.

“Above and beyond anything, Lei is a mum,” said Angwin, now an anchor at Al Jazeera news channel. “A mum to two young kids, who have reportedly not spoken to her in almost two years.”

Australian officials have regularly raised concerns about Cheng’s welfare and most recently visited her on March 21, according to a statement by Payne.

Around the same time that Beijing announced the charges against Cheng in September 2020, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Australian officials in June had searched the homes of several Australia-based Chinese journalists working for the state-run Xinhua News Agency, China Media Group and China News Service, and seized their electronics.

Two other Beijing-based Australian journalists, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith, fled China that month after receiving visits from state security officers, who told them they could no longer leave the country. After making it back to Australia, Birtles said the officers had asked him about Cheng.

The timing of Cheng’s detention raised speculation that it was tit-for-tat for Australia’s raids on the Chinese journalists.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied at the time that the events were linked. “I believe these are two different things, and we do not have to over-interpret this,” he said.

Several other foreigners or employees of foreign companies have been detained in China in recent years on alleged national security violations, with few details released. The legal uncertainties and China’s strict pandemic control measures have dampened enthusiasm among foreign businesspeople for working in China, once popular for its booming economy.

Bloomberg News journalist Haze Fan, a Chinese national and a friend of Cheng’s, was detained in December 2020. Chinese officials said at the time that she was being held on suspicion of national security violations. There has been no further information about her case.

Two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were jailed in China in December 2018, days after Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada on charges of fraud related to Huawei’s business in Iran. The “Two Michaels” were charged with espionage. They were allowed to return to Canada in September 2021, on the same day Meng returned to China.

Peter Greste, spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, who himself was detained by the Egyptian government and held for more than year on charges of damaging national security in 2013, said there has been a growing trend since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of governments detaining journalists by invoking national security.

“There’s no transparency around Cheng Lei’s case,” he said. “It’s very easy to use national security as a smokescreen.”

Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.