Who are Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, the Australians detained in China?

Key points
  • Journalist Cheng Lei has been detained in China since August 2020.
  • Author Yang Hengjun has been in detention since January 2019.
  • The warming of diplomatic relations gives hope for the release of Australian citizens.
Australia’s relationship with China is showing signs of improvement after years of tension. encouraging the release of two long-detained Australians.
Journalist and author both Australians of Chinese descent were held under secret conditions in China for more than two and three years respectively.
This week, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is visiting China to celebrate 50 years of bilateral relations between the two countries, becoming the first Australian Foreign Minister since 2018 to make the trip. This comes after a “constructive” meeting between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.
In an interview with SBS News this week, Ms Cheng’s partner Nick Coil spoke of the toll the situation has taken on the couple’s two children, but expressed hope that improved bilateral relations could see the Australian and Chinese governments work together to put end of his test partner

“The children walked without their mother because it will be the third Christmas. So it’s obviously a really worrisome situation for kids,” he said.

Cheng Lei pictured with his partner Nick Coyle at dinner.

Cheng Lei pictured with partner Nick Coyle.

“Obviously, the focus [Penny Wong’s] The trip is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations, and this should be celebrated, and rightly so. But, you know, Senator Wong has raised this issue with her Chinese counterparts several times, as has the Prime Minister. [Prime Minister Anthony Albanese]. Thus, with the improvement of bilateral relations and more frequent contacts, I hope a solution will be found,” he said.

“I think finding a solution, a quick and compassionate solution, is a good outcome for everyone.”

Feng Chongyi, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney and a friend of jailed activist Dr Yang, also expressed optimism about Senator Wong’s visit.

“I’m happy to see this new development and I hope it can do something to bring back my friend Yang Hengjun from China,” Associate Professor Feng told SBS News.

At a press conference Tuesday, Senator Wong said the Australian government would continue to push for Ms. Cheng and Dr. Yang to be reunited with their families, and to push for more regular consular visits.

“If people don’t want to, I usually don’t talk about who I talk to from the families of the detainees, for obvious reasons. It’s up to them whether they want to make it public,” she said.

“We will continue to push for both access to consulates, which is important, and [Yang Hengjun] and Cheng Lei to reunite with their families.”

Who is Cheng Lei?

Journalist Cheng Lei was detained in China in August 2020 while working as a news anchor for the Chinese government’s English television channel CGTN.

The 47-year-old was formally arrested in February 2021 on suspicion of illegally transferring state secrets abroad, according to then-Foreign Secretary Maryse Payne.

Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei attends a public event in Beijing on August 12, 2020 in this file photo.

Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei attends a public event in Beijing on August 12, 2020 in this file photo. Credit: AARP

On March 31, the former TV presenter faced a closed trial in Beijing, but the outcome is not yet known.

During her detention, Ms. Cheng was unable to talk to her two children, her partner, or any other relatives.

“Personally, I sympathize with her family, her children and her relatives who are in such a difficult situation,” Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said on ABC’s 7.30 program in September.

“I was trying to see if I could help as an ambassador to facilitate possible, much easier access either between her and her relatives or with the Australian embassies on humanitarian grounds.”

The International Federation of Journalists described Ms. Cheng’s detention as “unreasonable.”

Who is Yang Hengjun?

Yang Hengjun is an Australian writer and blogger born in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1965. He has been accused by the Chinese government of being a spy and could face a prison sentence of three years to death.
He denied that he worked as a spy for Australia or the US.
Dr. Yang was detained at Guangzhou airport in January 2019 after a flight from New York, and in 2021 he was accused by Chinese authorities of endangering national security by joining or accepting a mission from an unidentified spy organization.

Dr. Yang claimed that he was subjected to torture and hundreds of hours of interrogation during his detention, and said in a letter to his family before his trial in 2021 that he would endure “suffering and torture” with steadfastness.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has previously stated that “the judiciary handled the case in strict accordance with the law and (and) fully protected Yang Hengjun’s rights to litigation.”

Dr. Feng accused China of using “hostage diplomacy” for Dr. Yang.

Yang Hengjun and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang.

Yang Hengjun and his wife Yuan Xiaoliang. A source: Supplied

“The worst things actually happened back in early 2019, the first six months, he was severely tortured for confessing to establishing a case. We all know about the fabricated case against him, which is why we call it part of Chinese hostage diplomacy,” he told SBS News.

According to Dr. Feng, Dr. Yang’s health has “greatly deteriorated” since he has been imprisoned for almost four years.

“Before 2019, he was a very healthy person, but now he has heart problems, kidney problems, sleep problems, this is a terrible situation in terms of his health,” he said.