Australian journo Cheng Lei’s ‘love letter’ lays bare pains of China detention

An image of Cheng Lei, a mother of two and former anchor at Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, who was formally arrested in February 2021 — AFP/Files
An image of Cheng Lei, a mother of two and former anchor at Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, who was formally arrested in February 2021 — AFP/Files

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist detained in China on charges related to national security, has shared her experience of getting only 10 hours of sunlight each year in a heartfelt message she referred to as a “love letter” to her homeland. This marks her first public statement since her arrest in 2020.

At the time of her detainment in August 2020, Cheng, 48, was a business television anchor for Chinese state television. She was accused of sharing state secrets with another country, leading to her detention. Her poignant message was dictated to consular staff during a visit and subsequently released by her partner, revealing her circumstances and emotions.

“In the confines of my cell, sunlight filters through the window, yet I can bask in its glow for a mere 10 hours annually,” she expressed.

“Nature has become a distant memory; it’s been three years since I last beheld a tree. I find solace in reliving every memory of hiking through bushes, alongside rivers, lakes, beaches—embracing swims and picnics under enchanting sunsets. I silently utter the names of places I’ve explored and roads I’ve traversed.”

After more than a year since her trial in a closed Beijing courtroom, Cheng still awaits a verdict. The exact nature of her alleged offenses remains undisclosed.

The Australian government has consistently voiced concerns about her detention, which occurred amidst escalating trade disputes between Australia and China. This diplomatic tension has been gradually subsiding, with China recently lifting sanctions on Australian barley. This has prompted speculation about a potential visit by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Beijing this year, an opportunity that could alleviate pressures surrounding Cheng’s situation.

Albanese clarified that the timing of his potential visit holds no transactional motives. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the profound impact of Cheng’s message and praised her unwavering patriotism for Australia.

“Cheng Lei, having endured three years of detention, warrants a resolution to this issue,” he affirmed, citing his previous discussion of the matter with Xi Jinping.

Cheng’s partner, Nick Coyle, remarked to Reuters that Lei’s release and reunion with her children would considerably improve the overall dynamics of the bilateral relationship. As both countries work towards enhancing their ties, this gesture could hold significant significance.

Former chairman of the China-Australia Business Council for nine years, Coyle left Beijing in 2022. Cheng, who moved to Australia as a young child, fondly recalls her upbringing in a multicultural society.

Her bedding in prison is aired for a mere two hours under the sun once a year, returning warm. “I wrap myself in the doona (quilt) and imagine I’m embraced by my family,” she reflected.

The letter concludes with a poignant sentiment: “Above all else, I ache for my children.” Aged 11 and 14, they presently reside in Australia under the care of their grandmother.

In response to Cheng’s heartfelt message, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued a statement, recognizing her profound love for the country. Wong emphasized Australia’s ongoing efforts to advocate for Cheng’s cause and urged for the application of basic justice standards, procedural equity, and humane treatment in her case.

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