It took the Beijing court three hours on Thursday to discuss the case of Cheng Lei with the defendant in person. Three hours were enough for the Chinese judiciary to make a final assessment of the serious charge of leaking government secrets. This tiny short period contrasts with the long uncertainty in which the mother of two had previously been held. After all, the Chinese court had taken a long time before putting her on trial on Thursday.
The Australian woman with Chinese roots was detained 19 months ago. For almost half a year, her whereabouts were unknown. Neither did anyone know why she had been arrested in the first place. This was legal under Chinese law: police can place suspects under RSDL (Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location) for up to six months. During this time, they do not have to provide her with a lawyer or inform anyone about her whereabouts.
It was not until August 2020 that Chinese authorities informed their Australian colleagues that Cheng Lei had been formally arrested and accused of leaking secrets. The case made waves. Not only in the international community in Beijing, where the single mother readily offered private advice on which preschools were best for foreign families, but also in many parts of China, Australia and much of the political West.
As a spy in the pillory of social media
Cheng had worked for China’s state broadcaster CGTN for eight years. She was known to the public as a news anchor. She never made a secret of the fact that she valued the liberal spirit of democratic systems. She once appeared as a “global alumni” in a promotional video for Australia as a university destination, aimed at young Chinese. Australia’s education system “doesn’t teach you to just follow instructions, it allows you the freedom to make up your own mind,” she said in the video.
She continued to express her own thoughts during her time at CGTN. As an Australian citizen who had emigrated from China to Down Under with her parents when she was nine years old, she did not miss any opportunity to criticize President Xi Jinping or the Chinese government’s early Covid policy on the Internet. It is not certain whether these statements had anything to do with her later arrest.
Although Chinese state media strictly adhere to public announcements by the government in their reporting, information leaked out via social media. About a year ago, a WeChat user named “Beijing small sweet melon” took up the case, revealing astonishing details about Cheng Lei’s private life and the allegations against her.
Above the post it said, “Betraying her motherland, how did CCTV famous anchor Cheng Lei become an Australian spy?” And further down, the post reads, “China has given you everything, yet you counterattack as a tool of the enemy.” More posts on social media from other accounts with pseudonyms about the case followed shortly after, all with the same tenor. Later, a video surfaced, “Spy CCTV anchor Cheng Lei: For 20 years she hid in state television, stole state secrets, now after being detained, shamelessly claims injustice.”
It is highly unlikely that such posts appear randomly on such high-profile state matters in a tightly controlled surveillance state. “These posts are written by Ministry of State Security (MSS) people to set the public tone,” Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney told Australia’s ABC radio. Feng had been detained himself for a week during a visit to China four years ago.
Ambassador was denied entry to courtroom
After Cheng Lei’s formal arrest, Australian diplomats were allowed to communicate with her once a month via video phone calls. The topics, however, were chosen by the Chinese authorities. Australia’s Ambassador Graham Fletcher was even denied entry to the courtroom on Thursday. The Australian government had asked for a minimum rule of law in the run-up to the trial.
The biggest victims of the case, however, are probably the two twelve- and ten-year-old children of the 46-year-old. The mother had brought her daughter and son to their grandmother’s home in Melbourne shortly before she disappeared. Due to the Covid outbreak in China, Cheng Lei had decided on short notice to take the two out of the country. They have not seen their mother for more than a year and a half.
In the worst case, this situation could continue indefinitely if the judges hand down a life sentence. This is possible, but not likely. The usual sentences for such charges are five to ten years in prison. A possible conviction and sentence will be announced by the Chinese court at a later date. Usually, they are in less of a hurry than during the trial itself. Marcel Grzanna