TAIPEI, Taiwan — China is expected to charge the Australian journalist Cheng Lei with supplying state secrets overseas, signaling a continued hard line from Beijing against U.S. allies, as well as reporters working in the country.
The high-profile case coincides with an extraordinarily turbulent period in China- Australia relations. China’s formal move against Cheng came a day after Payne’s office called for a United Nations investigation into allegations of widespread sexual abuse in Chinese detention centers in the Xinjiang region, angering Beijing. Last year, Australia led calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, drawing Chinese retaliation in the form of steep tariffs on imports of Australian barley, beef, wine and other goods.
Australian officials have been able to visit Cheng during her detention, according to Payne. Australia “has raised its serious concerns about Ms. Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention,” Payne said in a statement. “We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”
Chinese officials have not given details about what kind of secrets they suspect Cheng of leaking. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Monday that Cheng’s rights would be fully protected and her case would be handled by judicial authorities “independently, according to law.”
“We hope that Australia will truly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering with China in handling cases in accordance with the law in any way,” he said.
Wang said he had no information about which foreign country Cheng allegedly provided secrets.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Monday that Cheng, a 45-year-old single mother of two, has been held in a cell without natural light and has had her exercise restricted. “Her conditions are worsening,” Cheng’s niece, Louisa Wen, told ABC.
Chinese prosecutors are legally allowed to hold suspects at undisclosed locations for six months while they build a case. Their next likely step would be to formally level charges against Cheng and proceed to trial, which could be months away.
The prosecutors almost always obtain convictions in court once they decide to formally arrest an individual and bring national security charges, which can be broadly defined.
Relations between the two countries have steadily soured since Australia’s government banned Huawei from the country’s 5G network in 2018 and accused China of running political influence and spying campaigns in the country.
Shortly after Cheng disappeared into an undisclosed detention center in August, Chinese officials sought to question Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith and bar their departure from China, leading to a standoff that ended with their evacuation under escort by Australian diplomats. Yang Hengjun, a naturalized Australian writer, was detained during a trip to China in January 2019 and charged with espionage.
Chinese officials and state media have repeatedly accused Canberra of doing Washington’s bidding and suggested that political and economic relations could improve if Australia were to distance itself from the orbit of American allies seeking to contain China and instead engage with Beijing on grounds of “mutual respect.”
After Canada detained Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States in December 2018, China detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in a move the Chinese ambassador likened to self-defense. The two Canadians are similarly facing charges of spying and providing state secrets overseas.
Haze Fan, a Chinese reporter who worked for Bloomberg News, was also detained in December on suspicion of national security crimes.