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'Love Letter' from Australian Journalist Jailed in China

FILE - Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing on Aug. 12, 2020.
FILE - Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, attends a public event in Beijing on Aug. 12, 2020.

Cheng Lei, the Australian journalist who this Sunday will mark three years of detention in China, says she misses the sun.

“In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window, but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year,” Cheng Lei said in an open letter to the people of Australia, dictated to diplomats who are able to speak to her each month and released by her partner. “I miss the sun.”

The letter is the first time Cheng has spoken publicly since she was detained in Beijing in August 2020. She was later accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas” in an ongoing saga that experts say highlights the lack of press freedom in China.

Cheng is a former television anchor at the Chinese state-run TV channel CGTN. Beijing has still not revealed the verdict of her closed-door national security trial that took place in March 2022.

In what she called a “love letter to 25 million people,” Cheng details all that she misses of Australia and the harsh conditions she has been forced to endure behind bars.

“This is a love letter to 25 million people and 7 million square kilometers [4.3 million square miles] 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,” she said.

“I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics and psychedelic sunsets. I secretly mouth the names of places I’ve visited and driven through,” Cheng said.

The journalist added that she misses the Queensland tropics, sand between her toes, the never-ending blue skies of western Australia and encounters with wildlife.

Cheng’s plight underscores the fact that China ranks among the world’s worst jailers of journalists and has one of the worst press freedom records in the world.

“Her case is emblematic of the severe restrictions on press freedom under [China President] Xi Jinping and how authorities wield national security charges to arbitrarily deny due process rights,” Angeli Datt, a China researcher at the free expression advocacy group PEN America, told VOA. “Her recent statement from detention shows a yearning for freedom.”

In an emailed statement to VOA, the spokesperson of China’s Washington embassy said, “China is a country governed by law. China's judicial authorities have been dealing with cases independently and the rights of the person involved are fully protected.”

“The Chinese government protects citizens’ freedom of speech in accordance with [the] law, and gives full play to the role of the news media and citizens in supervising public opinion,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson, continued.

Reading the letter was particularly difficult for Emily Angwin, who worked in Beijing with Cheng at CGTN until Cheng’s 2020 arrest.

“Lei’s beautifully written letter was heartbreaking to read and brought me to tears,” Angwin, now a freelance reporter in the Philippines, told VOA. “Imagine not seeing a tree for three years? Imagine being deprived of basic human rights, like sunshine and contact with your children?

“I am angry and in disbelief that Lei has been detained for three years and we are no closer to a resolution,” Angwin added. “Her letter highlights what an incredibly strong woman she is — as the conditions she’s being held in would break even the strongest of people.”

In the letter, Cheng said, “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.

Yaqiu Wang, who researches China at Human Rights Watch, said the letter “is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.”

“Her words showed her extraordinary resilience and her love for life and for her children,” Wang told VOA. “But the fact that three years later, she is still languishing in detention on dubious state secret charges just lays bare the abusive, impervious and politicized nature of China’s justice system.”

Wang added that Canberra should make clear that the reporter’s release is critical to the future of Australian-Chinese relations.

Earlier this year, Canberra expressed “deep concerns” over the delay in announcing the outcome of Cheng’s trial, which Australian diplomats were barred from attending.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a statement Friday that Cheng’s letter “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 be met for Ms. Cheng,” Wong said.

Cheng, who was born in China, moved to Australia when she was 10 years old.

“Growing up as Chinese-Australian, I had two identities that would often fight for the upper hand depending on the context and company,” she said in the letter.

“But in humor, the Aussie humor wins hands down every time,” she said. “We take fun seriously and make fun of seriousness.”

Cheng added: “It is the Chinese in me that has probably gone beyond the legal limit of sentimentality. Most of all I miss my children.”