The release from detention and the return to Australia of Cheng Lei was both unexpected and welcome.
Ever since the detention and arrest of the 48-year-old television journalist, Australian governments and embassy officials have been endeavouring to secure her release. It is a credit to the government and our returning ambassador in Beijing, Graham Fletcher, that they have finally succeeded.
Detained in August 2020, ‘formally’ arrested in February 2021 and charged with providing state secrets to foreign organisations, her secret trial repeatedly delayed, Cheng Lei has now been released following pressure on the communist regime.
The charges against her, which she denied, were unclear, the proceedings were secretive, and the verdict was never publicly released. Such is the nature of China’s so-called ‘rule of law’!
For three years, the business reporter was held in detention, only seeing daylight for ten hours a year. No wonder she spoke of “holding her kids in the spring sunshine” and seeing “the entirety of the sky” on her return to Australia.
Cheng Lei was used as a political hostage by the CCP. It was during the disputes about trade and Australia’s criticism of the regime’s refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the release of the COVID-19 virus that she was detained.
Her usefulness as a political hostage is now diminished. China realises that it requires Australian exports and didn’t want Anthony Albanese to postpone or cancel his planned visit to Beijing this year.
The saga reinforces the capricious nature of the CCP and the pretence about the rule of law under the regime.
Foreigners can find themselves dragged off by China’s state security officials, as two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig experienced when detained for two and a half years as hostages in retaliation for charges against the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
They were fortunate, being released after Meng returned to China from Canada, where she was fighting extradition to the US, after she admitted involvement in unlawful payments to businesses in Iran.
Meng’s return was feted on Chinese television without mentioning her admissions to US prosecutors. Since 2015, 16 Japanese citizens have been detained on vague charges, including ‘espionage’.
No one travelling to China is safe, including journalists, as Cheng Lei discovered. Chinese national Haze Fan of Bloomberg has also been detained for over a year for alleged involvement in state security cases, a vague description used by the regime to arrest individuals.
The audacity of the regime was on display during the Olympics when a Dutch journalist was dragged off-air during the Games opening ceremony in Beijing. The live television footage showed several security officials surrounding the journalist for the Dutch public broadcaster NOS Sjoerd den Daas before one of them grabbed him from behind. This was just an isolated event, protested the compromised International Olympic Committee, despite reports of other incidents of harassment!
Foreign journalists are an endangered species in China. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has reported physical assaults, hacking, online trolling, and visa denials. Many have left the country.
The regime has also commenced denying departure from China by some visitors to the country, leaving business persons and others stranded there. New vague national security laws that have been introduced can be used arbitrarily against anyone. No one should visit China unless absolutely essential.
The fact is that there is no independent judiciary in China. Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that judges, lawyers, legal scholars and law students must adhere to the CCP’s doctrines and directions.
The stark reality was described by a former CCP judge in an interview published in Kay Rubacek’s Who Are China’s Walking Dead?, a series of personal accounts by Chinese officials who have fled the regime.
“The CCP has the final say on everything. The government must obey the CCP, the court must obey the CCP, the Congress must obey the CCP, enterprises, civic organisations must obey the CCP. The CCP has presence and influence in every system and every corner. The CCP has monopolised all the power of this nation.”
Significantly, he revealed that CCP committees “work alongside the court.”
“The committee may give a directive, an opinion, or even order the court to handle the case in a certain way. The court is not allowed to comply with the law in that instance. The regime’s authority is above the law.”
Cheng Lei was detained for political reasons — and was released for political reasons!
No doubt she will tell her story in coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, another Australian, the writer Yang Hengjun, remains imprisoned in China after being charged with espionage. He claims to have been tortured. He, too, was the subject of a secret trial.
We can celebrate the release of Cheng Lei, but the episode again reveals that the CCP remains a capricious totalitarian regime.
Originally published in the Epoch Times Australia.