‘I can see the entirety of the sky now’: Australian journalist Cheng Lei is now free

Cheng Lei released

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong (left) with journalist Cheng Lei (right). Photo from the Twitter post of Penny Wong

Australian journalist Cheng Lei arrived in Melbourne on October 11 after being detained in China for over three years.

Prior to her arrest on August 13, 2020, for allegedly violating China's security law, she was a business journalist working as a TV presenter for the state-run China Global Television Network. Her supporters believe that she was held hostage as relations between China and Australia deteriorated over the origins of the COVID-19 virus, trade imbalance, and human rights concerns.

Media groups have worked hard for her release as they assailed the lack of transparency surrounding her case. Last August, Cheng Lei’s family published her prison letter which mentioned her living conditions. “I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year,” an excerpt from the letter.

After arriving in Australia, Cheng Lei expressed her happiness. Her partner Nick Coyle posted her message on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Tight hugs, teary screams, holding my kids in the spring sunshine. Trees shimmy from the breeze. I can see the entirety of the sky now! Thank you Aussies.

Her release was confirmed by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese:

I am pleased to confirm that Ms Cheng Lei has arrived safely home in Australia, and has been reunited with her two children and her family.

I spoke with her on the phone this afternoon. This is an outcome the Australian government has been seeking for a long time.

A statement of the Australian government added that “her release follows the completion of legal processes in China.”

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the Chinese government acted lawfully and protected the rights of Cheng Lei.

What I want to emphasize here is that the Chinese judicial authorities heard the relevant case and made the judgement in accordance with the law, fully guaranteed the rights enjoyed by the person involved, and respected and implemented the Australian consular rights such as consular visits and receipt of notifications.

The Chinese government also released information about her case:

In May 2020, Cheng Lei was coaxed by personnel from an overseas agency, violated the confidentiality clause signed with the employing unit, and illegally provided the state secrets she mastered at work to the overseas agency through her mobile phone.

Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance welcomed Cheng Lei’s release and insisted that the charges against her “had no substance”.

Australian journalists and press freedom advocates will be celebrating that our colleague Cheng Lei has finally been united again with her children in Melbourne.

We have always believed that the charges against her had no substance, and that if due legal process was followed she would be found innocent.

Sky News interviewed Cheng Lei who shared what she saw after arriving in Australia.

My kids running at me, and my mum, who’s aged a lot in the last three years.

And we all just screamed and my mum like wept and I just held onto her.

Sky News Washington correspondent Annelise Nielsen wrote about the interview she did with Cheng Lei.

Ms Lei has a remarkable story to tell. And I'm conscious that she's still processing everything that's happened to her.

The only real information from the outside world she's had was in the highly controlled environment of monthly consular visits with Australian Embassy staff.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances of her incarceration, the ‘mum guilt’ she carries not being there for her kids is palpable.

She has her voice back now and is determined to use it for good.

The release of Cheng Lei has raised hopes that authorities will also secure the freedom of Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun who has been imprisoned in China since 2019 over alleged espionage violations.

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