CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A Chinese-born journalist credited the Australian government for her return to Australia “in one piece” after her three-year detention in China in an espionage case that strained bilateral ties.
Cheng Lei’s comments broadcast on Thursday challenged Beijing’s version that she was deported this week under normal judicial procedures without political considerations.
The 48-year-old former Chinese state television anchor spoke to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese by phone from Melbourne Airport on Wednesday after her arrival from Beijing.
“Hello, prime minister. It’s because of you and all the team at DFAT that I’m able to make it here in one piece,” Cheng said in a video recording released by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong welcomed Cheng to Melbourne, where Cheng’s two children, 11 and 14, have been raised by their grandmother. Wong’s staff handed Cheng the phone to speak with Albanese.
Wong also took credit for Cheng’s freedom, saying improved bilateral relations had paid dividends since her center-left Labor Party government was elected last year after nine years of conservative rule.
“We’ve made clear since we were elected that we wanted to stabilize our relationship with China, we wanted to engage and I think you’ve seen some of the benefits of engagement,” Wong said.
Albanese plans to visit Beijing this year at a date yet to be set. He would become the first Australian prime minister to visit China in seven years.
Albanese said he had had “good, constructive” meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang about Cheng’s case.
Cheng, who was born in China and migrated to Australia with her family at age 10, had worked for China’s state broadcaster CCTV. She was arrested in August 2020 when bilateral relations were plumbing new depths.
China’s Ministry of State Security said Cheng provided a foreign organization with state secrets she had obtained on the job in violation of a confidentiality clause signed with her employer. A police statement did not name the organization or say what the secrets were.
A court in Beijing convicted her of illegally providing state secrets abroad and she was sentenced to two years and 11 months, the statement said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the Chinese judicial system tried the case “in accordance with the law, fully safeguarding the rights enjoyed by the person concerned in accordance with the law.”
Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China and a friend of Cheng, described China’s explanation that she had been released according to law as a “face-saving solution.”
Albanese and Wong deserved congratulations for stabilizing the bilateral relationship and for raising Cheng’s case with Chinese leaders at every opportunity, Raby said.
“Persistence and constantly coming back to this issue and advocating on her behalf in private but at very senior levels … trickles down through the Chinese system and I think the result we see thankfully … yesterday is a product of all of that effort,” Raby said.