Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher denied entry to Beijing trial of Australian TV host

Australia’s ambassador to China says he has been denied entry to the Beijing trial of an Australian TV host accused of sharing state secrets, the latest development in an opaque case analysts worry may be politically motivated.

Cheng Lei, a former business anchor of China’s state broadcaster CGTN, is accused of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, a charge that carries a possible sentence of between five years to life in prison.

Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher told media it was “deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable” he had been denied entry to the trial, which was due to start on Thursday.

Graham Fletcher, Australia’s ambassador to China, speaks to journalists after being denied access to the trial. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) (AP)

“We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret,” he said, adding that Australia had no information about the charges or allegations against Ms Cheng.

“That is part of the reason why we’re so concerned, because we have no basis on which to understand why she’s been detained.”

A heavy security presence including uniformed police and plain-clothed security personnel were outside the No.2 People’s Intermediate Court in Beijing where Ms Cheng was to be tried, Reuters reported.

Police, who had taped off areas close to the north entrance of the court, checked journalists’ IDs and asked them to move away.

Graham Fletcher, Australia’s ambassador to China, crosses barriers as he walks to the Beijing No.2 Intermediate People’s Court before the trial . (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) (AP)

Cases related to national security are typically tried behind closed doors in China.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said Canberra had been advised Ms Cheng would stand trial on Thursday, and had asked that Australian officials be permitted to attend the hearing.

Ms Cheng has been in custody since August 2020, and observers have raised concerns over the secretive court process.

Ms Payne said Ms Cheng had been allowed regular access to Australian consular officials, who last saw her on March 21.

Chinese police officers stand watch outside the Beijing No.2 Intermediate Peoples Court before the trial of Chinese-Australian business reporter Cheng Lei on Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Beijing. Journalist groups have renewed calls for the release of Chinese-Australian business reporter Cheng Lei before her trial in Beijing on espionage charges. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) (AP)
Chinese authorities have not revealed details of the allegations against Ms Cheng, but the country has a nearly 100 per cent conviction rate, meaning it is “almost set in stone” that a guilty verdict will be handed down, says Elena Collinson, a senior researcher at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute.

The lack of transparency over the case and backdrop of deteriorating relations between China and Australia has prompted concerns that the case could be political.

Cheng Lei (Getty)
Chinese authorities have not revealed details of the allegations against Ms Cheng (Getty)

“Even allowing for circumstances in which the case brought against her has some substance, it is just very difficult to believe that tensions between Australia and China haven’t in some way affected or factored into this case,” Ms Collinson said.

“It may well be that the number of years in the sentence will be tailored to send some sort of political message,” she said.

“(The verdict) will just fuel the already acute distrust that many Australians feel with respect to Beijing.”

The woman at the centre of the case

Cheng Lei is a high-profile Australian television anchor for the Chinese Government's English news channel, CGTN
Cheng Lei is a high-profile Australian television anchor for the Chinese Government’s English news channel, CGTN (CGTN)

Before her detention, Ms Cheng had been working a business anchor on CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV.

She previously worked for US financial news network CNBC, and in her spare time, she was active in the Australian community in Beijing.

In the months after Ms Cheng was detained, her friends said they were in shock.

“I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” Louisa Wen, Ms Cheng’s niece and spokeswoman for the family, told the ABC last year.

“We don’t know if she’s just been caught up in something that she herself didn’t realise.”

Ms Cheng’s two children are being cared for by their grandmother in Melbourne, the ABC reported.

According to a statement from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, of which she is a member, Ms Cheng has not been able to speak with her children since she was detained.

“Her two children and elderly parents miss her immensely and sincerely hope to reunite with her as soon as possible,” Ms Cheng’s family said, in a statement this week.

High-profile Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been detained in China. (Twitter – Cheng Lei)

Analysts say the tense political climate between China and Australia appears to have played a part in Ms Cheng’s detention and arrest.

China dubbed Mr Morrison’s proposal “political manipulation,” and targeted Australia over trade, slapping products with tariffs and blocking acquisitions by Australian companies.

Soon after Ms Cheng was detained, two Australian journalists working in China fled the country after authorities attempted to question them on national security grounds, leaving Australia’s media without any journalists in China for the first time in nearly 50 years.
There are concerns the that the case could be political. (AP)

“There’s no transparency, the outside world has no idea what the person has actually done,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, referring to Cheng.

“The only thing we know is that this happened during the context of increased tension between the two countries — and the fact that the Chinese government has a history of leveraging, exploiting those cases for political purposes.”

In 2021, China released Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been held for three years on espionage charges. They were detained shortly after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US warrant related to the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been charged with espionage.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had been charged with espionage. (AP)
The two Canadians were released after the United States Department of Justice and Mr Meng reached an agreement to defer prosecution of US charges against her until late 2022, after which point the charges could be dropped. China consistently denied that the cases were in any way connected.

“This all happened in the context of increased tensions between the West and China,” Mr Wang said.

“All people who are foreign nationals doing work in China can be used as leverage by the Chinese government for political purposes.”

In the 19 months since Ms Cheng was detained, Australia and China’s relations haven’t improved.

Australia has been taking a more “confrontational stance” when it comes to China, said Wang.

While any change in government at the upcoming election would unlikely see a policy shift on China, it could help clear the air, Ms Collinson said.

“That might pave the way for — if not a reset — a blunting of this very sharp friction between the two countries.”

Why the South China Sea dispute matters

It’s not clear what, if any, a reset of bilateral relations would mean for Ms Cheng, who remains isolated from her support networks and separated from her family.

“She has two young kids who she hasn’t seen in years now,” Ms Collinson said.

“It’s all well and good to talk at a high level about political tensions and the ramifications thereof, but in terms of its spillover, there are some very real consequences and heavy penalties that normal people have to pay.”

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