An Australian journalist jailed in China says she sees sunlight “only 10 hours a year” and misses her children.
In 1987, Cheng Lei and her family immigrated from China to Australia when she was only 10 and became Australian citizens. Later, Cheng returned to China and worked as an anchor at China’s state-run English-language television station, CGTN, in Beijing. Three years ago this week, on Aug. 13, 2020, Cheng “disappeared” from the public eye.
Before her “disappearance,” the Australian government warned its citizens in China of the risk of arbitrary detention and an exit ban because Beijing was upset about Canberra’s push to uncover Covid’s origin through the World Health Organization (WHO). Beijing dismissed the Australian warning as disinformation even though China is known to deploy “hostage diplomacy” to silence critics and coerce other nations to fall into its line. A few weeks after Cheng’s “disappearance,” two Australian journalists fled China, fearing for their safety. The tale of their escape reads like a script for a “Bourne Supremacy”-type thriller.
When Cheng was arrested, her children were 9 and 11. Now they are 11 and 14 and haven’t seen their mother for three years. Cheng recently “wrote” an open letter to her family and Australia, the country she has called home since she was a teenager. Her love letter was dictated through Australian diplomats in China, who see her once a month. It’s the first time she’s spoken up since her “disappearance” in 2020.
In her letter, Cheng described her perilous situation in jail, including, “I haven’t seen a tree in three years. … I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window, but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year.”
She also expressed her love for Australia: “I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics with psychedelic sunsets, sky that is lit up with stars, and the silent and secret symphony of the bush.” She ended her letter with, “Most of all, I miss my children.”
Six months after Cheng’s “disappearance,” the Chinese government announced she was arrested by state security officers and accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” She could face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted. Her charge was so vague that no one knew what she could have done to breach China’s national security law, given that she worked at CGTN, a heavily censored state media. Curiously, China announced Cheng’s arrest a few days after U.K. regulators stripped CGTN’s national broadcasting license, citing the outlet’s lack of editorial control and links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In March last year, Cheng went through a secret trial that lasted less than a day, and the Australian ambassador to China wasn’t allowed to attend. Neither the Australian government nor Cheng’s family knew what evidence was presented nor the charges against Cheng. After the secret trial, the Chinese government kept delaying the sentencing of Cheng.
Chinese authorities also arrested another Chinese Australian, Yang Hengjun, a blogger and spy novelist, on suspicion of committing espionage. Yang’s sentencing was also repeatedly delayed. These sentencing delays raised suspicions that Beijing intended to use Cheng and Yang as bargaining chips to drive concessions from Australia, including demanding Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visit China later this year.
Kyle Bass, a U.S.-based investor and outspoken critic of the CCP, pointed to Cheng’s situation as a warning by tweeting, “If you are a westerner still living in China, GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN. If you are an investor in Chinese equities, bonds, or private equity, GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN. Xi had the tools of dictatorship ‘firmly in his hands’. #China.”
Cheng’s case is agonizing to watch for overseas ethnic Chinese working in the media industry, including myself. I pray for her safe return to her family. As a U.S. citizen, I cherish my constitutional right to free speech. But I am painfully aware of the steep price I have paid for speaking up: It is not safe for me to ever return to China to visit family, celebrate my friends’ weddings or the births of their children, or attend a high school reunion. I have had to give up many relationships and miss scores of life events to keep people I care about and myself out of danger.
But how long will I be able to speak truth to power in the United States? On the one hand, the CCP’s long arm has already extended to the U.S. through spies and secret police stations, among other means, to intimidate and silence critics. On the other hand, some in the U.S. government have shown they wouldn’t hesitate to go after journalists who held different political views.
It was not a coincidence that an IRS agent visited journalist Matt Taibbi on the same day he testified to the U.S. Congress about the “Twitter Files,” documents showing U.S. government officials and congressional leaders pressured Twitter to censor speech they didn’t like. Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat, threatened to put Taibbi in jail over his congressional testimony.
The pandemic revealed that freedom is fragile even in a constitutional republic or a democracy. Some in positions of power are always eager to seize the first opportunity to expand their control over our lives, regulate our thoughts and ideas, and subordinate our rights to their will.
Despite all these risks, I won’t give up writing. Speaking my mind is part of who I am, and I have no regrets about choosing a path less traveled. But Cheng’s letter reminds me I should enjoy sunshine, trees, and freedom as much as possible — and while I still can.