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Cheng Lei, detained Australian journalist, is freed by China

Australian journalist Cheng Lei speaks on the phone, on arrival at Melbourne Airport in Melbourne, October 11, 2023.
AAP Image/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) via REUTERS
Australian journalist Cheng Lei speaks on the phone, on arrival at Melbourne Airport in Melbourne, October 11, 2023.

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist imprisoned in China, has been allowed to leave the country and is back home in Australia after being detained for more than three years on charges of espionage.

"Tight hugs, teary screams, holding my kids in the spring sunshine," she said in a statement posted on social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.

Cheng was born in China but emigrated to Australia at a young age. She later spent years as a reporter covering China for both foreign and domestic audiences and was working as an anchor for the international wing of the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV when she was suddenly detained in 2020.

Cheng's arrest came at a time when Australia-China relations were in a deep freeze, in part over Australia's condemnation of a global coronavirus pandemic it alleged China had done too little to stop.

Two Australian reporters fled the country after they were approached about an investigation in the wake of her detention. That year, Beijing also stopped the bulk of its trade with Canberra by imposing prohibitively high tariffs on Australian goods like barley, meat, and wine. Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-born Australian blogger and former Chinese government official, was detained by China in 2020 as well on espionage charges.

Chinese authorities alleged that Cheng had been detained because she passed on classified information about China's economy to foreign entities. Her trial last year was conducted behind closed doors, and Australia's ambassador and other diplomats were barred from attending.

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In a statement released this summer while she was in prison, Cheng said she spent more than three years in detention without seeing the sun.

Cheng's release now comes as Australia seeks to improve their ties with China. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in September he is planning a visit to China this year, the first by an Australian leader in seven years. Last month, a delegation of Australian federal ministers visited China to discuss trade and investment between the two countries.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.