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.
Previously, Cheng Lei was a journalist and news program host for Chinese state television. After being detained, she asked to see a lawyer, but her requests were repeatedly denied and she is currently being held without charge in a Beijing prison.
She is 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 Graeme Fletcher or other Australian consular officials.
This week, during a recent visit, 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 the topics that could be discussed, but Australian consular officials learned that Chinese authorities were still not allowing Cheng Lei to talk on the phone with her two children in Melbourne, ages 11 and 9.
Previously, during a 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 her family’s statements 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 to Chinese authorities on behalf of her family to “show compassion.
Strange WeChat post raises questions
The Chinese government has provided no additional details on the case since confirming in February that Cheng Lei was under investigation for “allegedly illegally providing state secrets to foreign countries.
Official media have reported on the brief official statement.
But in recent months, a series of posts and videos have appeared on several small public WeChat platforms denouncing Cheng Lei as a “spy” and containing far more detailed information about her than the official media has provided.
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!” .
Earlier this year, the public website was also used to denounce Chinese Australian author and political commentator Xu Xiuzhong as a “traitor”.
More mysterious posts appear
Four days after the initial post about Cheng Lei, a similar micro-signal published another post with similar content. This public number, called Movies 369, 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 with 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 in 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.
“The Ministry of State Security has its own propaganda department, and they decide in what way to demonize the accused.”
Feng Chongyi 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 be little more than 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 Policy Institute. “
“If the microsignal that originally posted this is the same one that first posted content about Xu Xiuzhong – and it does appear to be. 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.”