The family of an Australian single mother detained in China on national security grounds has broken their silence, saying her children are devastated by her absence and keep asking when she is coming home.
Cheng Lei, a business anchor for China’s state television network CGTN, has been locked up in Beijing without charge or access to a lawyer for six months.
In recent days, Chinese authorities confirmed for the first time that she is accused of unlawfully supplying or intending to supply state secrets or intelligence to an overseas organisation or individual.
Authorities have not provided any further details, but under Chinese law, punishments can range widely, including a life sentence for the most serious offences.
Locked in a cell without fresh air or natural light, Ms Cheng has faced multiple interrogations and recently guards tightened restrictions on her ability to write letters and exercise.
“When we were first notified about her detention, we were all in shock,” said Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece and spokeswoman for the family.
“We don’t understand anything about the case.
“But we do know she’s been in detention for five-and-a-half months, and her conditions are worsening.”
Cheng’s 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son are being cared for by their grandmother in Melbourne.
When coronavirus shut their Beijing school in early 2020, Cheng sent them temporarily to Melbourne, unaware that the pandemic would later shut China’s border.
Her plans to come home to Australia to reunite with them were scuttled when a group of state security police arrived at her apartment in Beijing’s inner-east on August 13, taking her and her electronic devices away.
“I think at nine and 11, you’re old enough to understand a little bit about why mum isn’t here, or why mum isn’t able to contact you,” Ms Wen said.
“But I feel like the children don’t fully understand the situation, so it’s probably quite tough on the kids wondering what’s going on.
“Every time we do something fun, we’re thinking of her and how she can’t enjoy these things with us.”
Ms Cheng has not been charged, but in a sign her case is progressing, she has now been formally “arrested”.
It is a step that confirms investigators are preparing to prosecute her, but leaves an open-ended timeline for how long it will take.
In some other national security cases, investigators have managed to use various measures to continually prolong the time suspects spend detained while they continue to gather evidence.
“I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” Ms Wen said.
“We don’t know if she’s just been caught up in something that she herself didn’t realise.”
‘Vivacious, intelligent, respectful’
Cheng Lei was born in China but moved with her parents to Brisbane at the age of nine.
She studied accounting at the University of Queensland, later speaking of her experience in a promotional video aimed at Chinese students, saying an Australian education “doesn’t teach you to just follow orders, it allows you that freedom to think for yourself”.
She later moved to Melbourne, working for major companies such as Cadbury and ExxonMobil, before embarking on a business media career for both Chinese state television and CNBC in Singapore.
“She’s vivacious, intelligent, respectful, and really, really good fun,” said Emily Angwin, an Australian news anchor who worked alongside Cheng at CGTN before resigning from the channel.
Managers at the channel purged Cheng’s videos and profile page from CGTN’s websites after her sudden disappearance, but would not tell her colleagues what had happened.
“It’s frightening. Your friend is at work one day, and then she’s disappeared and been detained the next day – it’s a pretty gut-wrenching situation,” Ms Angwin said.
Prior to her arrest, Cheng was a celebrated member of the Australian community in Beijing, appearing regularly at Australian embassy and Business Chamber events, and being named as a “global alumni” to promote Australian education.
No clarity on the case
The timing of her arrest came six weeks after ASIO officers raided the homes of four Chinese state media journalists in Sydney, prompting Beijing to later retaliate against Australian media journalists in China.
But a second arrest late in 2020 has cast doubt on the idea that the case is purely related to diplomatic tension with Australia.
In December, Cheng’s close friend Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist in Beijing working for American outlet Bloomberg, was also taken away in what authorities say is a national security investigation.
Geoff Raby, a businessman and former Australian ambassador to Beijing, said the case could be related to domestic political issues in China rather than being related to tense ties with Australia.
“The reality is because we don’t have high-level official contact between Australia and China. The Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister are not able, as in the normal course of events, to make high-level representations to the Chinese government on behalf of Cheng Lei,” he said.
In a statement, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “The Australian government has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention.
“Australian Embassy officials have visited Ms Cheng six times since her detention, most recently on 27 January 2021, in accordance with our bilateral consular agreement with China.
“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”
Another Australian citizen, Yang Hengjun, has spent more than two years detained in Beijing without trial, accused of espionage.
Authorities did not allow him to meet a lawyer until the 19th month of his detention.
Cheng’s family hopes for a much faster resolution.
“My hope is that there be more action by the Australian government to secure her release and bring her home,” Louisa Wen said.
“Also that the Chinese authorities would show a bit more compassion to her current plight.
“She’s a mother with two young kids who really need her,” she said.