Chinese officials’ attempt to ‘block’ formerly detained journalist mars Australia goodwill tour

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Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s four-day visit to Australia this week was set to be focused on repairing long-strained relations between the two countries. But apparent efforts by Chinese officials to stand in front of an Australian reporter during a press briefing have shone a spotlight back on frictions between the countries.

Cheng Lei, a TV anchor who was held in detention in China for more than three years before her release in 2023, told Sky News Australia the officials went to “great lengths” to block her from the cameras during a press event Monday where Li and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese signed cooperative agreements.

Video footage appears to show two people involved in the incident, with one of them, described by the outlet as a Chinese embassy employee, trying at one point to push closer to a seated Cheng, despite being blocked by another woman, identified by Sky News as an Australian official, who intervenes to give her space.

“I’m only guessing this is to prevent me from saying something or doing something that they think would be a bad look, but that in itself was a bad look,” Cheng told Sky News, where she has been employed as a news presenter and columnist since late last year.

Cheng added that such behavior was “typical” as Chinese officials wouldn’t want “voices of discord or the presence of someone who’s a bit controversial” when they are aiming to present a “friendly facade.”

Multiple media outlets that were also in attendance at the press conference, including the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, reported the same details.

China’s security state keeps tight control on media and information within the country, where officials are not subject to the kind of robust questioning common to democratic countries.

Beijing has also long been condemned by Western nations and rights groups for wrongful and arbitrary detentions.

Cheng, previously a business anchor for China’s state broadcaster CGTN, was detained by Chinese authorities in August 2020 on opaque espionage charges that came as diplomatic tensions were escalating between Beijing and Canberra.

The mother of two spent more than three years in detention before being released by Beijing and returned home to her family in October, weeks before Albanese made the first visit of an Australian leader to China in seven years.

Speaking to Sky News ahead of the news conference Monday, Cheng said it was a “very emotional day” for her to be covering the major visit.

“Surely the fact that one minute I’m sitting in incarceration and being raised as a topic at these visits then the next minute I’m actually covering the visit … is testament to how wonderful freedom is and democracy is,” she said.

Cheng’s detention had been a deep point of contention between the two governments, as has the jailing of writer and democracy activist Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen who earlier this year was handed a suspended death penalty sentence for espionage following years of detention. Yang has denied the charges, which rights groups have said are politically motivated.

Albanese said he raised Yang’s case with Li, but declined to give an update on the health of the democracy activist, who has said he fears he could die in jail due to health issues.

When asked during a press conference later about Cheng being blocked from view by officials during the document signing, Albanese said he didn’t see the incident described but added it was “important that people be allowed to participate fully and that’s what should happen in this building or anywhere else in Australia.”

Pandas and visas

The situation Monday stands as a stark reminder of Beijing-Canberra tensions and deep concerns within Australia, a staunch US ally, about China’s authoritarianism amid a trip that was otherwise meant to instill goodwill.

The four-day visit of Li, China’s No. 2 official, to Australia is the highest-level trip to a US-allied country of any Chinese official in seven years. It comes as the two countries have made strides in mending deep tensions over issues of trade, security and Beijing’s alleged political influence in Australia and the South Pacific.

Speaking alongside Li following the signing ceremony, Albanese called the visit “another important step in stabilizing” the relationship.

The Chinese premier, speaking via a translator, pledged that China would work with Australia in “a spirit of mutual respect, seeking common ground while showing differences and mutual benefit.”

Li announced Sunday that China would provide a new pair of giant pandas to the Adelaide Zoo in southern Australian after its current pair return to China later this year – extending a classic gesture of friendship from China often called “panda diplomacy.”

China would also add Australia to its visa-waiver program, Li said Monday.

Details were not immediately announced but follow similar visa arrangements with other countries in recent months as China struggles to draw in more international tourists to boost its flagging economy following years of Covid-19 border restrictions. Li announced a waiver scheme for New Zealand during a visit there Friday.

The two leaders agreed to greater military-to-military communication, according to Albanese.

The agreement follows recent close encounters of the two powers. In May, a Chinese fighter jet fired flares into the path of an Australian helicopter over the Yellow Sea in a move Albanese condemned at the time as “completely unacceptable.”

Li’s Australia visit comes as China has gradually rolled back a number of crippling trade controls that it placed on key Australian imports including beef, barley, timber, coal and wine from 2020 after then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

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