As China-Australia Relations Thaw, Hope Grows for Cheng Lei

As China-Australia Relations Thaw, Hope Grows for Cheng Lei
Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist who has been detained in China for almost three years, attends a public event in Beijing, Aug. 12, 2020 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

BEIJING—Yesterday marked 1,000 days since Australian journalist Cheng Lei disappeared on her way to work. Days later, her friends and family found out that China’s state security police had taken her away. She is still behind bars awaiting a verdict on spying charges.

For six months beginning in August 2020, Cheng Lei was put under “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,” or RSDL, a “secret jail” system whereby Chinese police can detain people, usually those suspected of endangering state security, with no requirement to reveal their whereabouts; the RSDL system is known to use solitary confinement in cases like Cheng’s. It wasn’t until February 2021 that Cheng was formally arrested on vague espionage charges, accused of “supplying state secrets overseas,” for which she could face a life sentence. Her family insists on her innocence and maintain that they do not know why she was arrested in the first place.

Around the time she was formally arrested, Cheng was moved to a regular prison, where she at least has cellmates and therefore human company. But other than that, the conditions remain dire. She has been confined to a shared bed in a cramped cell, with only two hours a day of fresh air. She reportedly told Australian diplomats that she had been using sanitary pads to protect her feet because she has not been provided with proper shoes. Worse still, she has not been able to see or speak to her two young children, who are now aged 11 and 14. 

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