Australian national and Chinese state TV anchor Cheng Lei stood trial behind closed doors at a Beijing court on Thursday for alleged breaches of the national security law.
Cheng was detained on suspicion of “spying” in August 2020, and has been held incommunicado for more than 18 months since.
She stood trial at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Thursday, amid tight security, but accompanied by a lawyer, according to an Australian diplomat at the scene.
Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher said he was denied permission to sit in the public gallery for the trial, on the grounds that the case “involved state secrets.”
The refusal came despite a public request from Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, who called on Beijing to allow diplomats to observe the trial and observe basic standards of fairness, procedural justice and humane treatment.
Fletcher told reporters he was concerned about the outcome for Cheng.
Beijing-based criminal lawyer Zhang Dongshuo said the harshness of Cheng’s sentence — Chinese courts rarely acquit defendants outright — would likely depend on how sensitive the “secrets” involved were deemed to be.
“If it is a question of more than one instance, for example, sentencing would be very different if there were more than 10 or less than 10 instances,” Zhang said. “Whether it involved the highest-level of classified information, what they call ‘top secret,’ or a lower level [also affects the outcome].”
He said Cheng’s Australian passport is unlikely to help her much.
“Nationality and identity are generally not considered in sentencing, but in some special cases, it could be affected by matters of national defense, foreign affairs and other matters, and special consideration may be given by the court,” Zhang said.
Currently, sentencing for those found guilty of “illegally providing state secrets overseas” ranges between five and 10 years’ imprisonment, but lighter sentences have also been given, he said.
If Cheng was seen as “cooperative,” for example, if she “confessed” to the charges and pleaded guilty, she could be released soon after the trial.
“This possibility certainly exists,” Zhang said. “If the number and level of state secrets in Cheng Lei’s case aren’t high, then she could receive a fairly light sentence with time already served deducted.”
But he said there was no guarantee, in the absence of further information about the charges faced by Cheng.
Feng Chongyi, a professor of political science at the University of Technology Sydney, said the existence of any “confession” was the most important factor, however.
“This is very important,” Feng said. “This is the scary part of the Chinese criminal law. It requires the person to plead guilty, and it depends on your attitude in making a confession.”
“Cheng Lei is a mother of two children. That would make it easier to negotiate with the Chinese authorities and to reach a compromise,” he said.
Meanwhile, little has been heard of Bloomberg News employee Haze Fan, who was taken away by state security police in December 2020 on suspicion of “endangering national security.”
Chinese authorities have only said that investigation into her case is still ongoing.
Both Fan and Cheng had been friends, helping to collect donations of medical supplies to aid front-line medical workers in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, according to information publicly available on Facebook.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for Fan’s immediate and unconditional release, saying the allegations against her have no credibility.
Cheng, 47, was born in Hunan and moved to Australia with her parents as a child. She once worked as an anchor on China Global Television News (CGTN), the international arm of CCTV.
She was detained in August 2020 and formally arrested in February 2021.
Cheng’s detention came amid increasingly strained ties between Beijing and Canberra, which is taking steps to limit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s propaganda outreach in the country, and which has barred Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from bidding for 5G mobile contracts.
Risks of reporting
While foreign journalists have long faced challenging conditions under CCP rule, now they are also dealing with growing hostility and intimidation, including online stalking, smear campaigns, hacking and visa denials, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said in its annual report in February 2022.
More than 60 percent of respondents had been obstructed by police or officials last year, while almost all journalists who went to Xinjiang were visible followed throughout their trips, while more than a quarter said their sources had been detained, harassed or questioned more than once following interviews.
There is also a growing legal threat for journalists working in China, with the authorities encouraging a spate of lawsuits or the threat of legal action against foreign journalists, typically filed by sources long after they have explicitly agreed to be interviewed, the report said.
It said “state-backed attacks” including online trolling of foreign journalists is also on the increase.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.