Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a mother of two, has been detained in China on suspicion of leaking state secrets. She told Australian diplomats that she was warned to keep her family quiet about her case in the media.
In February, Chinese Communist authorities formally arrested Cheng Lei on suspicion of “illegally providing state secrets to overseas countries. (Supplied)
Previously, Cheng Lei was a journalist and news program host for Chinese state television. After being detained, she was denied access to a lawyer several times and is currently being held without charge in a Beijing prison.
She is being held in a cell with two other people and once a month is taken to another room for a highly controlled video call with Australian Ambassador Fu Guanghan (Graeme??Fletcher) or other Australian consular officials.
During a recent visit this week, she was brought into the room blindfolded, masked and handcuffed by four guards, two of whom were wearing full personal protective clothing.
Video footage of the visit shows that she was asked to sit in a chair with a wooden restraint strapped to her knees before the guards removed the blindfold and mask so that interested parties could visit via webcam.
The guards strictly controlled what could be discussed, but Australian consular officials learned that Chinese authorities still prevented Cheng Lei from talking on the phone with her two children in Melbourne, ages 11 and 9.
Cheng Lei’s children remain in Australia while she is detained in China. (Supplied)
During a previous visit in March, just weeks after her family broke their silence for an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 current affairs program, Cheng Lei told Australian officials that “the interrogation was set up to convince her step by step that what her family said to the media could ultimately have a negative impact on her case “
Australian officials noted that “she raised the issue discreetly and did not take any further position on the matter.”
Earlier, Cheng Lei’s Melbourne-based niece Louisa Wen appealed on behalf of her family to the Chinese Communist authorities to “show compassion.
Strange WeChat post raises suspicions
Since February, when it was confirmed that Cheng Lei was under investigation for “allegedly illegally providing state secrets to foreign countries,” the Chinese government has provided no additional details on the case.
The official media reported on the brief official statement.
Cheng Lei is pictured interviewing U.S. commentator Lei Xiaoshan in Shanghai, where she was the host of the English-language channel of the official Chinese Communist Party media, China Global Television Network. (Supplied)
In recent months, however, a series of posts and videos have appeared on several small public WeChat platforms denouncing Cheng Lei as a “spy,” and these posts contain far more detailed information about her than is provided by the official media.
In early April, an article detailing Cheng Lei’s life story appeared on a public WeChat number registered by a woman from Heilongjiang, entitled: “Chinese CCTV anchor, secretly a spy for another country.
The author dug deeper into Cheng Lei’s WeChat and Facebook posts, accusing her of being “two-faced” for expressing concern on Facebook in early 2020 about her family’s risk of contracting the new virus, and calling Cheng Lei’s actions unpatriotic for criticizing China’s efforts to contain the virus.
The lengthy post also digs deeper into her personal and professional life, with some details in error and others purely fabricated, saying “China has been kind to you, but you bite back, and at the end, you are willing to be a tool of the enemy, sad and hateful!” The post said, “China has been kind to you, but you bite back.
Australian journalist Xu Xiuzhong was also criticized on WeChat. (ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)
Earlier this year, the public page was also used to denounce Chinese Australian author and political commentator Xu Xiuzhong as a “traitor”.
More Mysterious Posts Emerge
Four days after the initial post about Cheng Lei, a similar micro-signal published another post with similar content. This public number, called Movies369, usually posts about celebrities and movies, and the content about Cheng Lei did not fit well with this practice.
Several more posts have since appeared, some getting basic details wrong, including her name.
This past week, another video was posted, titled “After 20 years undercover at CCTV, she was exposed as a spy by a slip of the tongue.
“These posts are written by people from the Ministry of State Security to set the public tone,” said Feng Chongyi, a China studies expert at the University of Technology in Sydney who was himself detained for a week during a visit to China four years ago.
A video posted online claims that Cheng Lei is a spy and that she is now “shamelessly claiming injustice” after her detention. (Supplied)
“The Ministry of State Security has its own propaganda department, and they decide how to demonize the accused.”
Feng also noted that the Chinese government’s mainstream media outlets typically only report information that is officially released by the courts.
“That’s the beauty of Chinese propaganda – making it appear that the content is just the opinion of the people,” he told ABC.
“[The Ministry of State Security] works in the shadows. They create those fancy names on WeChat to hide their identities.
“People need to understand that we’re dealing with a bunch of hooligans, not a normal government.”
The posts hint at Cheng Lei’s fate
Professor Feng believes that the spread of this public information could mean that authorities are preparing to prosecute Cheng Lei, although they could go ahead and request an extension.
China has a criminal conviction rate of more than 99 percent.
Some proponents argue that relatively quick trials, convictions and sentences with short sentences, including time served before deportation, are the best a person on trial can see in this dire situation.
But another Australian detained in Beijing on state security charges, Yang Hengjun, has so far spent more than two years in prison without trial.
Other experts are cautious, suggesting that WeChat posts may simply be headline parties to attract clicks.
The information appears to have been easily obtained from Cheng Lei’s previous interviews or gleaned from her social media accounts,” said Fergus Ryan, a web analyst at the Australia n Strategic PolicyInstitute. “
“If the microsignal that originally posted this is the same one that first posted content about Xu Xiuzhong – and it does look like it is. Then, to me this is a strong signal that the DSS is involved.
“If that is the case, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the DSS is planting this information in the Chinese information space so that it can be weaponized for propaganda purposes in the future.”