By foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic
Cheng Lei’s trial was held in secret.
The federal government is touting the release of Cheng Lei as proof its diplomatic strategy with China is working.
When China’s polished ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian was asked about Cheng Lei earlier this week, he did not give even a hint that one of the most painful and bitter disputes in the bilateral relationship had just been resolved.
Xiao has spent plenty of time fielding questions from Australian diplomats, businessmen and journalists on why the mother-of-two and former state TV anchor has been detained for years on charges which are almost universally regarded — at least in Canberra — as utterly trumped up.
So when he fielded yet another query about Cheng Lei and detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun at the Asia Society on Wednesday morning, the ambassador repeated some fairly familiar talking points.
“What I can share with [you] is that both sides have engaged very closely and have been working very hard trying to be helpful within the scope of laws and rules, trying to find a solution to these cases as quickly as possible,” he said.
Xiao did not let on what he must surely have known by then — namely, that as he was speaking, Cheng Lei had already departed China and was winging her way to Melbourne for an emotional reunion with her children.
The resolution of her case will be a huge source of joy to Cheng Lei and her loved ones.
It’s also a profound relief for the federal government, which has put considerable time and effort into bringing her home.
The exact circumstances surrounding her release are still murky, and we may never get complete clarity on exactly how Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Australian diplomats managed to secure her freedom.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong met Cheng Lei after she arrived home in Melbourne.(DFAT)
China keen to apply a sheen of legitimacy
Beijing has never given a detailed account of exactly what Cheng Lei had supposedly done to justify her confinement, and getting any clarity from China’s notoriously opaque legal system has been next to impossible.
China’s Ministry of State Security said on Wednesday that Cheng Lei had been “coaxed” by “personnel from an overseas agency” and had pleaded guilty to providing them “state secrets” via her mobile phone — perhaps the most detailed public statement yet on the charges against her.
The penalty for this was, apparently, a sentence of two years and 11 months — which very conveniently fills the passage of time between her being jailed and the present day, at a moment when China is keen to build goodwill ahead of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, China’s government remains keen to give the proceedings a sheen of legal legitimacy.
Xiao said her case involved “Chinese laws and Chinese regulations and is being dealt with in accordance with Chinese laws,” suggesting that officials were powerless to intervene.
But as Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute has pointed out, Chinese courts are not independent entities and are inseparable from the ruling party.
Which in turn points to what Australian politicians and officials alike must suspect but (quite understandably) do not wish to articulate: that Cheng Lei has been used as a political pawn in a broader strategic and diplomatic dance and that Beijing decided to release her now only because they believed it was useful to do so.
Seen in this light, it’s hard not to see Cheng Lei’s apparent guilty plea — and the Australian government’s silent acquiescence to it — as the price of her freedom, and one paid to give the Chinese government’s account of events a thin veneer of plausibility.
Australian leaders are not going to point any of this out publicly, of course.
It would just draw a predictable and furious denial from Beijing.
One government source also pointed out that it would also make it all the more difficult for officials to secure the release of other Australians — like Yang Hengjun — caught up in the same quagmire in China.
Which might be why the Prime Minister has repeatedly deployed the same rather decorous and deliberate phrase when asked about Cheng Lei’s release: that “the judicial processes were completed in China”.
Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping held talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last year.(Twitter: Anthony Albanese )
Xiao outlines China’s ‘three expectations’
Beyond delivering what McGregor describes as a pre-visit “sweetener” to Mr Albanese, why did Beijing choose this moment to let her go, and what might it signify?
It’s impossible to deny the symbolic weight of Cheng Lei’s release, even as her champions remind journalists and politicians alike that China deserves no credit for finally freeing a woman it has treated with such callous disregard.
It does now seem clear that China really is intent on resuming a less hostile relationship with Australia, re-establishing something much closer to normal diplomatic ties.
China ended its policy of official silence towards Australia 17 months ago when Labor won office, and high-level political dialogue and regular diplomatic exchanges are now starting to return to something like a pre-COVID tempo.
Many (but not all) of the trade barriers thrown up when the bilateral relationship was at its nadir, from coal, to timber, to barley, have now been lifted, allowing more Australian products to flow back into China.
There’s even hope in Canberra that Chinese officials might soon end crippling tariffs on Australian wine.
Of course, Beijing remains unhappy about Australia’s push to develop nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact and continues to complain forcefully whenever it’s locked out of sensitive sectors in Australia, like critical minerals.
But it no longer talks about many of the items included in the notorious “14 grievances” it handed over to an Australian journalist in 2020.
At the Asia Society event on Wednesday, Xiao had a more gentle and less exacting formulation instead — the “three expectations”.
First, the need for “mutual understanding” without suspicion. Second, the expansion of “practical cooperation”. Third, the “proper” handling of differences.
All of these developments are welcome, although Australian officials and politicians remain somewhere between realistic and jaundiced when you ask them how far this rapprochement can go in the current era.
And Cheng Lei’s release, however heartwarming, is also a powerful reminder of just how deep the differences between China and Australia still run.
There might well be space, as Xiao says, for the two countries to plough new ground, building a deeper clean energy relationship and allowing the natural complementarity of both economies to open up fresh arenas for cooperation.
And despite the federal government’s determined push to diversify, China seems destined to remain Australia’s largest trading partner for years to come.
But the Chinese government’s two-year campaign of economic coercion, furious denunciation, diplomatic silence and mysterious arrests made a deep impression on decision-makers in Canberra, and not just on those already inclined to suspicion or scepticism about the rising giant.
Much like Cheng Lei’s three years behind bars, it has left a painful legacy that cannot be completely erased.