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An Australian journalist detained in China goes on trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An Australian journalist goes on trial in Beijing today. She's been accused of espionage and is one of several journalists detained as relations between Australia and China remain strained.

NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng brings us this report.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Cheng Lei's trial began on a chilly morning with lots of police and red tape. Graham Fletcher, Australia's ambassador to China, tried to attend...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM FLETCHER: I'm here to attend her trial, if possible, and support her.

FENG: ...But was rebuffed from the courtroom by police, citing national security laws barring an open trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLETCHER: Well, as you've seen, we've just been denied entry into the trial. This is deeply concerning, unsatisfactory and regrettable. We can have no confidence in the validity of a process which is conducted in secret.

FENG: Cheng had been an anchor on a prominent news show for China's state broadcaster until 2020, when she was suddenly detained on national security grounds. This was around the same time relations between Australia and China plummeted. China blocked Australian imports earlier in the year. Then Australian police raided the homes of several Chinese academics and journalists it suspected of being spies. Weeks later, Cheng was arrested and two other Australian journalists interrogated about her. They later fled China. Since then, Cheng's been detained, awaiting trial without access to family or her children. Her lawyer is banned from sharing details of the allegations against her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLETCHER: We have no information about the charges or allegations against Ms. Cheng. And no, we just don't have any information on that. And that is part of the reason why we're so concerned because we have no basis on which to understand why she is being detained.

FENG: Another Chinese-born Australian citizen, the pro-democracy writer Yang Hengjun, was tried last year in the same courthouse as Cheng. They both face up to life in prison. Officially, they've been accused of passing on state secrets to a foreign country. Their families deny these allegations. And China's offered no evidence, say diplomats, of what Cheng actually is accused of doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This state media video was released just weeks before Cheng's trial. It claims she passed on data about China's economy to the U.S. and Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) How else could Cheng say so confidently that U.S. and Australia understood China's economic developments? No matter how you look at it, Cheng Lei clearly had problems. She also sent her children to Australia during the pandemic and mocked China on foreign websites. Who would have thought she would bite the hand that fed her?

FENG: A verdict in Cheng's case is not expected immediately. Her case is among several instances of harassment and intimidation against journalists. While not as serious as a national security charge, there have been at least nine lawsuits against other foreign journalists in the last year. And just after Cheng was detained, Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was also detained on national security suspicions. She has not been formally charged, nor has she been released. She has simply disappeared.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYKKE LI'S "MELODIES AND DESIRES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.