Australian TV journalist Cheng Lei has been released from Chinese detention and has returned to her home country after three years in jail. The Australian government confirmed her return on Wednesday. Cheng, who holds an Australian passport and grew up in Melbourne, was a high-profile TV anchor for CGTN, the international broadcast arm of state-owned China Central Television. She was detained in August 2020 and formally arrested in February 2021 on espionage charges.
China’s Ministry of State Security stated on its WeChat social media account that Cheng had been deported after completing judicial processes. According to the ministry, Cheng had allegedly provided state secrets to a foreign organization in violation of a confidentiality clause signed with her employer. The organization and the nature of the secrets were not disclosed.
Cheng’s release comes amid escalating tensions between Australia and China over various issues, including perceived Chinese influence in Australian politics and business, territorial claims in the South China Sea, and Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. China has responded with retaliatory actions against Australian imports.
Other Australian journalists and executives have also faced difficulties in China. In 2019, Australian writer and businessman Yang Hengjun was arrested, and in 2018, Australian journalist Chris Buckley was expelled. Recently, Chinese authorities detained Bloomberg staff member Haze Fan and journalist and filmmaker Du Fan on national security-related charges.
While tensions have eased somewhat in recent months, with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reportedly planning a trip to China later this year, foreign executives in China continue to face detention or exit bans. Notably, a Japanese pharmaceuticals executive and a U.S. executive have also encountered difficulties.
The release of Cheng Lei marks a significant development in the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Australia and China.