‘I haven't seen a tree in three years’: An Australian journalist’s prison letter from China

Cheng Lei

Cheng Lei wrote a letter addressed to fellow Aussies. Screenshot from YouTube video of ABC news report.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei penned a “love letter” addressed to fellow Aussies as she marked her third year in detention in a Chinese prison.

Cheng Lei was arrested on August 13, 2020, in China on the “suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” Prior to her arrest, she was a business journalist working as a TV presenter for the state-run China Global Television Network.

Various media and human rights groups have called for her release as they denounced her continuing detention and extended trial as unjust. Some supporters of Cheng Lei believe that she was held hostage as China and Australia engaged in a diplomatic tussle over the origins of the COVID-19 virus, trade imbalance, and human rights concerns.

Cheng Lei’s letter was released by her partner Nick Coyle, who got it from the transcription provided by Australia’s diplomatic officers.

Cheng Lei wrote about the home she remembers:

This is a love letter to 25 million people and 7 million square kilometres of land, land abundant in nature, beauty and space

It is not the same in here, I haven't seen a tree in three years

I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics and psychedelic sunsets, sky that is lit up with stars, and the silent and secret symphony of the bush

I secretly mouth the names of places I've visited and driven through

I miss the Australian people, the closing hours of food markets stalls, with butchers calling out end of day prices and Sunday flea markets, immigrant family-run takeaway shops.

She recalls the kindness of fellow Aussies:

I received such kindness from strangers and friends, my ESL teacher who taught me hot and cold by running my hands under the tap

In 1987 I remember camping for the first time with my family, my dad driving a $700 car with P plates on the screen

I remember my great Cypriot friend, the teenagers who gave me fugly names at school

When I was assaulted in my own house in Brisbane 1994, the kindness that I experienced from people, including Officer Mabbutt who helped me, my faith never wavered

Memories of this kindness have come back to me now and restored me

She narrates her living conditions inside a Chinese prison cell:

I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year

Every year the bedding is taken into the sun for two hours to air. When it came back last time, I wrapped myself in the doona and pretended I was being hugged by my family under the sun

She reflects on her Chinese-Australian identity:

Growing up as Chinese Australian, I had two identities that would often fight for the upper hand depending on the context and company, but in humour, the Aussie humour wins hands down every time

Even though we speak different languages and eat different meals, we laugh the same and have an eye for the absurd

We take fun seriously and make fun of seriousness

Finally, she expresses her love for her family:

It is the Chinese in me that has probably gone beyond the legal limit of sentimentality

Most of all, I miss my children

Her partner, Nick Coyle, used to be the head of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce. In a media interview, he talked about the impact of Cheng Lei’s detention on their family.

The Chinese Embassy in Canberra told the media that Cheng Lei’s incarceration upholds the rule of law.

China's judicial authorities have handled the case in accordance with the law, and the lawful rights of Cheng are under full protection. Based on humanitarian considerations, China is ready to listen to Australia's demands and provide assistance within the scope of legal provisions.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong lauded Cheng Lei’s strength and assured her and her family that the government is advocating for her welfare.

I want to acknowledge Ms Cheng's strength, and the strength of her family and friends through this period.

Ms Cheng's message to the public makes clear her deep love for our country. All Australians want to see her reunited with her children.

Australia has consistently advocated for Ms Cheng, and asked that basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met for Ms Cheng, in accordance with international norms.

Eryk Bagshaw, the North Asia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, wrote about Cheng Lei being a “pawn in a broader diplomatic dispute.”

Her fate is linked to the relationship between Australia and China, and Cheng is a pawn in a broader diplomatic dispute that has consumed four years and involved $20 billion in trade strikes, two governments, and the 48-year-old mother of two.

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of China studies at the University of Technology Sydney, urged the Australian government to pursue the release of Cheng Lei:

If Australia does not stand its ground, Australian citizens doing business in China could face the risks of being arbitrarily arrested or charged with espionage. Changing its position on issues related to Australia’s interest and core values will put the Australian government in a morally indefensible position.

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