1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Press FreedomChina

Cheng Lei: Australian journalist's dire prison conditions

William Yang Taipei
September 6, 2022

Australian journalist Cheng Lei is reportedly being held in cramped, difficult conditions in a Chinese prison more than two years after her arrest.

Cheng Lei
Cheng's eyesight has reportedly deteriorated in prisonImage: Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Australia Global Alumni/AFP

More than two years after her detention in China, new details show that Australian journalist Cheng Lei has experienced tough prison conditions — and her health has also reportedly deteriorated.

Cheng, a former anchor for China's state-run broadcaster CGTN, was reported as missing in August 2020. She was arrested in February 2021 when she was formally charged with "suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas."

In March this year, she was tried behind closed doors but an official sentence has not yet been released.

Life behind bars

The Chinese-born Australian mother of two could face life imprisonment if she's found guilty of violating China's national security laws.

According to the documentary "Disappeared: The Cheng Lei Story" released last month by the Australian news outlet, The Daily Telegraph, Cheng told Australian diplomats during consular visits that she had to put sanitary pads into her shoes because of inadequate footwear.

Additionally, she told the diplomats that she was often pinned to chairs with wooden boards, and had to share a bed and a toilet with three other inmates in a tiny cell.

Her eyesight has also deteriorated due to the long hours spent in the cell but prison authorities told her that it would be a "hassle" to get her reading glasses, according to the documentary.

The documentary says this new information was based on consular reports produced by Australian diplomats in China.

Cheng Lei's partner, Nick Coyle, speaks in an interview with Sky News Australia in Sydney
Nick Coyle, Cheng Lei's partner, is unable to talk with her in prisonImage: Sky News Australia via AP Photo/picture alliance

Denied phone calls with family

Cheng's partner Nick Coyle, who is a former head of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce, told DW that Cheng is only allowed one 30-minute video call with the Australian consulate a month, but otherwise isn't allowed to call her family. 

"She hasn't been allowed any phone calls or video calls or communication with her kids or family. She has had three visits from her lawyer during the preparation for her trial," Coyle said.

"Because we are not married, I don't have any visibility beyond that. I think she is allowed to write letters to her immediate family. Her kids and parents have received letters, but the process is that if the letters get screened, it often takes months for things to get back and forth."

Coyle said that the details in the Australian documentary were consistent how he saw Cheng's situation. 

"Her conditions are difficult and there are no other ways to describe it," he told DW.

The most important thing, he said, was to get a quick resolution and to get Cheng home.

"At the end of the day, it's my job to give her as much encouragement and positivity as possible. Fortunately, she's been very strong and she's coping with it as best as she could," Coyle said.

He added that Cheng's two children were "resilient" and were getting on with their lives as best as they could.

"They need their mom and their mom needs her kids. Everyone is just trying to support each other as much as possible."

A cyclist rides past the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court
Cheng Lei's detention came during a time of deteriorating diplomatic relations between China and AustraliaImage: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Staying positive in a Chinese prison

In the documentary, The Daily Telegraph also mentioned that Cheng tried to teach other inmates English with Shakespeare and English television series. She reportedly told Australian diplomats that her career teaching English as a second language was "flourishing."

"With my cellmates, I can see how much of a difference I am making to their lives. This is uplifting for me. I'm not wasting time, and I'm not valueless," she reportedly said.

Coyle told DW that Cheng has always been someone who cares about other people.

"Her personality and her dynamism and strength will mean she'll make the best out of every situation she can. That's how she's wired and that's a tremendous complement to her," he said.

"She'll be trying to get through every day trying to be as positive as possible and trying to have a positive impact on people around her."

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong
Australian FM Penny Wong promises that Canberra will continue advocating for Cheng's interests and well-beingImage: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Australia urges humane treatment

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong promised that Canberra will continue to advocate for Cheng's interests and well-being in an August statement.

"Since Ms. Cheng was detained in August 2020, the Australian government has consistently called for basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms," Wong said.

Meanwhile, China's ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, claimed the rights of Cheng Lei and other Australian citizens currently detained in China were "well protected."

"There are a couple of Australian citizens in China that are under custody according to Chinese rules and laws, and their basic rights are well protected, don't worry about that," he said during an event at the National Press Club in the Australian capital, Canberra.

The Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, believes the Australian government should stress that the release of Australian citizens detained in China is critical to resetting the soured relationship between the two countries.

"Obviously, [Cheng] is not the only Australian citizen that's wrongfully detained [in China,] and it's important that the Australian government makes it clear that releasing both of them [Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun] is absolutely critical to resetting the relationship with Beijing," Pearson told DW.

Graham Fletcher, Australia's ambassador to China, speaks to journalists after being denied access to Cheng Lei's trial
Graham Fletcher, Australia's ambassador to China, was denied access to Cheng's trial because 'it involved state secrets'Image: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo/picture alliance

China's hostage diplomacy in play

Chinese Australian writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 when he arrived in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou with his wife and child. He's been charged with espionage and there are ongoing concerns about his health conditions.

Yang's close friend Feng Chongyi, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney, told DW that both Yang and Cheng's cases show that China is prepared to detain specific people on trumped-up charges.

In the initial stages of detention, these individuals are often be put under "residential surveillance at a designated location" (RSDL) where authorities may use different ways to force them to confess to certain crimes, he added.

"When Yang was put under RSDL, they repeatedly deprived Yang of sleep and kept interrogating him," he said.

"Yang's case was heard more than a year ago, but there are still no official sentences. Both cases show that the trial process doesn't follow Chinese legal procedures. Rather, it is dominated by political considerations."

Australians 'at risk'

Pearson from Human Rights Watch said that China does have a track record of using "hostage diplomacy", although it was hard to determine whether both cases were related to the worsening relationship between China and Australia.

"We do have concerns about these two cases and whether these Australians are effectively used as pawns in a greater battle between the two countries and for the Chinese government to get leverage over Australia," she told DW.

"I think the Australian government needs to work in coalition with other governments. It's important that they collectively raise concerns with the Chinese government. Ultimately, I think that will be more effective," Pearson said. 

Currently, Australian warns its citizens to exercise a high degree of caution in China.

"As previously advised, authorities have detained foreigners on grounds of 'endangering national security'. Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention," the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says on its website.

Pearson said there seemed to be a pattern of foreign nationals facing the risk of arbitrary detention in countries like China, Russia and Iran.

"I'm worried there seems to be a pattern here and probably that does make Australian citizens think long and hard before traveling to certain countries," she told DW.

"I think it's important that all governments need to make it clear that citizens can't be arbitrarily detained as means of punishing certain governments or in order to extract certain concessions from that government," she added.

Edited by: Keith Walker