One year after her detention on "spying" charges, concerns are growing over Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who remains in detention with no access to a lawyer, the Australian government said on Friday.
"The Australian Government remains seriously concerned about Ms Cheng's detention and welfare and has regularly raised these issues at senior levels," foreign minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
"We are particularly concerned that one year into her detention, there remains a lack of transparency about the reasons for Ms Cheng’s detention."
Payne said consular officials have been visiting Cheng regularly, most recently on July 26, and that the government is providing assistance to her and her family.
"We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms," she said.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canberra said the case would be handled "in accordance with [Chinese] law."
"We firmly oppose the statement by the Australian foreign minister," the embassy said in a statement on its website.
"China has repeatedly made clear its position on the case concerning Australian citizen Cheng Lei," it said.
"The Australian side should respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in any form in Chinese judicial authorities’ lawful handling of the case," the spokesperson said.
Beijing-based lawyer Zhang Dongshuo said Cheng, who was initially held under "residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL)," was being denied access to a lawyer because the charges are related to "national security."
"If a lawyer wants to meet with a suspect during the investigation, the agency carrying out the investigation has to approve it," Zhang said.
"Investigations can take a long time, depending on the particular crime [the suspect] is accused of," he said.
Details still unclear
Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney said Cheng's case is still mired in uncertainty, however.
"Exactly what kind of secrets did she leak, and to whom?" Feng said. "In the absence of specific evidence, there is no good reason to detain someone for such a long time."
"Cheng Lei is the mother of two children, aged 10 and 12, who are now in Melbourne with their grandmother," he said. "Detaining her like this is pretty inhumane."
Feng said Cheng's background as a former anchor for state broadcaster CCTV likely complicates matters.
"TV anchors in CCTV are pretty high-ranking," he said. "She interviewed politicians in many other countries, and knows quite a few of the diplomatic corps in Beijing, as well as interviewing top executives in multinational corporations."
"When the pandemic hit ... she posted on Facebook about what was really happening ... but people are also speculating that she and [former journalist] Yang Hengjun were arrested as a bargaining chip for bilateral ties after they turned cold," Feng said.
Cheng, 46, was born in Hunan and moved to Australia with her parents as a child.
She once worked as an anchor on China Global Television News (CGTN), the international arm of CCTV.
She was detained in August 2020 and formally arrested in February 2021.
Tried for espionage
Yang Hengjun could face a lengthy jail term following his trial behind closed doors for "espionage" in Beijing on May 28.
Yang, 54, an outspoken Australian writer and political commentator who formerly held Chinese nationality, was detained on arrival at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19, 2019, then taken to Beijing by officers of the state security police.
Cheng's detention came amid increasingly strained ties between Beijing and Canberra, which is taking steps to limit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s propaganda outreach in the country, and which has barred Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from bidding for 5G mobile contracts.
Reports have also emerged that Canberra is investigating the extent of Chinese influence at Australian universities after the University of Queensland suspended undergraduate student Drew Pavlou for protesting its ties with China and Chinese rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Billions of dollars flow into the country's higher education institutions via the 150,000 Chinese students who flock there to study every year.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gao Feng.