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Cheng Lei – A Casualty of Foreign Relations - To Question or Not to Question?

There are many reasons why the eyes of the world are squarely focused on China these days, not least of which relates to the growing diplomatic dispute between China and Australia. This has culminated in a series of defence, trade and foreign policy disputes that are escalating, and the blame placed on China for the global pandemic has simply added an additional layer of tension. It is of note; that both governments seem to be in a tug-of-war that has produced unforeseen casualties for citizens in both nations, specifically and ironically; members of the media.

In August 2020; Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian citizen, was arrested in China

and held without charges or access to a lawyer for 6 months. It was hypothesized, that

Ms Lei had been criticising the Chinese government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is much speculation, that her detainment could be linked to strained diplomatic relations between Australia and China. Coincidentally 6 weeks prior to Ms Lei’s arrest, ASIO raided the homes of Chinese journalists in Sydney; whilst simultaneously in China, some Australian correspondents were questioned by Chinese state security agents, and subsequently returned to Australia. The Chinese Ministry for Education also issued a warning to Chinese students residing in Australia, that “a series of vicious attacks on foreign students has been reported in several Australian cities”. The Australian government spokesperson stated these claims were baseless.

Cheng Lei was born in China and moved to Brisbane, Australia with her mother when she was nine years old. Cheng graduated from the University of Queensland and worked for Cadbury Schweppes and Exxon Mobil before embarking on a career as a business reporter/Journalist.

Since 2013, Cheng had been living in China with her two young children and working as a well-known reporter on the English-speaking news channel CGTN news in China. Her children were returned to Australia at the beginning of the pandemic in May of 2020 into the care of their grandmother. Cheng Lei expected to follow shortly thereafter, however, the Chinese borders subsequently closed to travel and she was unable to leave.

Shortly thereafter, on Aug 13 2020, Cheng was arrested and for many months held in a prison cell without fresh air or sunlight. Despite enquiries made by the Australian government, details of her alleged crimes were not made available. Shortly after Ms Lei was arrested, another reporter working for Bloomberg, Haze Fan (a friend of Ms Lei’s) was also detained. On Feb 5 2021, Ms Lei was finally charged with supplying

Chinese state secrets overseas.

Liberal senator James Paterson, whom Chairs the Australian Parliament's Intelligence

and Security Committee; said “that he hoped Cheng's arrest was not part of a tit-for-tat political spat between the two countries”.

Prior to her arrest, Ms Cheng was a celebrated member of the Australian community

in Beijing, appearing regularly at Australian embassy and Business Chamber events and also named as a “Global Alumnus” to promote Australian education. Ms Cheng's videos and profile page were removed from CGTN's websites after her disappearance, but no-one from the news station would (or could) advise her colleagues what had occurred. "It's frightening; your friend is at work one day, and then the next day she's disappeared and been detained — it's a pretty gut-wrenching situation,” reported Ms Angwin, a friend of Cheng Lei’s.

So, is Cheng Lei a whistle-blower, or has she been entangled in as foreign relations tug of war?

Internal Chinese politics could well be at play here, and indeed it is common for

those that question the Chinese government to find themselves in hot water. The irony here, is that it’s a Journalists job to question, research and report to the public. So how does a journalist with integrity, walk the line when reporting on government actions and policy? How does a journalist fare in China whilst holding citizenship with a country that has strained relations with China?

At this point in time, we have no details of her alleged crimes and only a simple statement of charges (that are vague at best) have been provided; as such we cannot know if this is indeed a political issue or a foreign relations dispute between the two countries. “If it were the case, it would amount to the Chinese government admitting that it takes political hostages in a retaliatory way”, told Senator Paterson to ABC radio.

Beside our concern for her welfare, we should all be very alarmed over this. Can an Australian citizen languishing unrepresented in China, charged with such serious allegations, expect fair representation?

Whether Cheng Lei is a whistle-blower or not remains to be seen, however, so far there has been no outcry from the Australian government over her confinement. Does our government bare at least some responsibility for Cheng Lei’s situation; since from

every angle it is the strained relationship between the two powers that may have caused her arrest in the first place?

Serene Teffaha has been very vociferous in her desire to stand up for whistle-blowers;

and knows only too well how important it is that we stand up for those who stand up for us, so this case deserves all the attention we can give it. Australian Barristers, lawmakers and political leaders – please stand up! Australians citizens, please ask yourself, who will be next? If we, a country with apparent freedom of speech, allow one of our own to be unrepresented by an Australian legal team during such precarious times; then we too, are living already within the bounds of fascism.

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