Almost 20 months after she was detained in Beijing, an Australian journalist who worked for China’s global television network stood trial behind closed doors on Thursday, accused of sending state secrets abroad.
The Chinese authorities have not released the details of their allegations against the journalist, Cheng Lei, nor have her lawyers or family disclosed any specifics. Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, was not allowed to attend Ms. Cheng’s trial at the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing.
“We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret,” Mr. Fletcher said after being denied entry.
Court officials cited Chinese restrictions on access to proceedings involving national security, but Mr. Fletcher said Australia’s consular agreement with China should allow diplomats to attend any trial of an Australian national.
“We have no information about the charges or allegations against Ms. Cheng,” he said. “That is part of the reason why we’re so concerned, because we have no basis on which to understand why she’s been detained.”
There was no immediate indication of how long Ms. Cheng’s trial would last. Many such trials are over in a day, with a decision issued later.
Chinese judges almost invariably find defendants guilty, especially in politically sensitive cases like national security ones. But Ms. Cheng and her family, including a young son and daughter in Australia, may have to wait weeks, months or longer before a judgment is handed down. Another Australian national, Yang Hengjun, stood trial in Beijing on espionage charges in May 2021, but the court has yet to announce a ruling in his case.
“Her two children and elderly parents miss her immensely and sincerely hope to reunite with her as soon as possible,” Ms. Cheng’s family in Australia said in a written statement. “We will not be making any further comment at this time.”
The mystery surrounding Ms. Cheng’s case has kindled speculation that she was targeted because of souring relations between China and Australia.
Despite their economic interdependence, the two countries have been at loggerheads over regional security, Australia’s ban on the use of Chinese technology for 5G telephone networks, and Australian legislation aimed at curbing China’s efforts to influence the country’s domestic politics.
China has frozen high-level government contacts with Australia and put informal sanctions on some of the country’s goods, including wine and barley. Australia’s center-right prime minister, Scott Morrison, who faces an election within months, has accused opposition politicians of selling out to Beijing, drawing rebukes from former and current Australian intelligence officials.
In June 2020, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization searched the homes of four Chinese journalists based in Australia. Two Australian journalists who were working in China left there in haste a few months later after state security officers questioned them, including about Ms. Cheng.
Ms. Cheng’s friends have doubted that she was detained because of these broader issues, though the tensions may now weaken Australia’s leverage over her fate.
As a business news host for CGTN, or China Global Television News, China’s main international broadcaster, she promoted herself as a bridge between the two countries and was uninterested in gossiping about politics, said Rowan Callick, an Australian journalist formerly based in Beijing.
Ms. Cheng was detained in mid-August 2020, and three and a half months later the police in Beijing also brought in her friend Haze Fan, a Chinese employee of Bloomberg News. Ms. Haze remains in secretive detention.
“Cheng Lei’s arrest was just a complete shock,” Mr. Callick said. “She was a go-to host for Australian social and business events” in Beijing, he added. “She was never one to be interested in that sort of political chitchat.”
Ms. Cheng, now in her mid-40s, was born in Hunan Province in southern China and migrated to Australia with her parents when she was 10. After working in Australia as an accountant and business analyst, she returned to China and shifted to journalism, becoming a prominent face of the Chinese government’s expanding international media presence.
Her Twitter profile called her a “passionate orator of the China story.”
But Ms. Cheng appeared to take a dimmer view of the Chinese government in 2020, after the Covid pandemic began in the city of Wuhan, prompting a lockdown there and tough restrictions across the rest of the country. In posts on Facebook, Ms. Cheng suggested that official incompetence and secrecy had led to the medical disaster.
“The size of China means it’s a giant colander through which personal tragedies fall,” she wrote in one post, “but still, reality sometimes feels like a slow-motion horror movie unreeling death by death.”