China releases an Australian journalist

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who was detained more than three years ago in China, returned home to Melbourne yesterday (Wednesday).

Ms Cheng was arrested in August 2020 while working as an anchor at one of China’s state-owned broadcasters. Beijing offered few details on why she was arrested, and Australian officials weren’t allowed at her trial in March.

Then yesterday, Cheng suddenly touched down at Melbourne airport, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to China. Beijing later said:

  • she’d been sentenced, served her term, then been deported, and
  • her alleged crime was “providing state secrets to an overseas party”.

Intrigue’s take: Statements out of both Canberra and Beijing have been careful to note that Cheng’s release marked the end of a legal process in China. But of course, the timing is intriguing:

  • Cheng’s arrest coincided with a collapse in China-Australia ties
  • Her release coincides with a bilateral repair effort (Australia’s prime minister will soon visit China for the first time in seven years), and
  • Her reported sentence effectively covers the time in between.

So all this timing, opacity, and (for a supposed national security conviction) brevity, plus backgrounding out of Canberra, points to a deal being done.

Also worth noting:

  • Cheng released her first public statement from prison in August.
  • Other Australians remain in detention under unclear circumstances in China, including writer Yang Hengjun.
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