Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been released from detention in China after spending more than three years behind bars. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced her return and described her as “strong and resilient.” Cheng had been detained in 2020 on espionage charges, but the specific details of her case remained largely undisclosed. Her release signifies a positive shift in diplomatic relations between Australia and China, which had been strained for several years. This improvement in relations follows the election of the center-left Labor government in Australia in May 2022 and has resulted in the reopening of high-level ministerial meetings and the removal of export restrictions by Beijing. Cheng’s release is seen as a positive step toward normalizing ties between the two nations.
Cheng Lei’s release from Chinese custody comes after a period of diplomatic tensions between the two countries, triggered in part by Australia’s call for an independent probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her detention raised concerns that Beijing was using her case to exert pressure on Canberra. While China’s Ministry of State Security later stated that Cheng had pleaded guilty to passing national secrets to an overseas institution, the specific details of her activities and the institution involved remain undisclosed. Cheng’s release aligns with recent efforts by China to improve its relationship with Australia. Beijing has made several requests, including the removal of anti-dumping tariffs on steel products and support for China’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
While China-Australia relations are showing signs of warming, challenges still remain. Australia’s former ambassador to China expressed optimism that with Cheng’s release and the resolution of remaining trade issues, ties between the two countries can return to a more normal state. Nevertheless, some contentious issues, such as Australian politicians’ visits to Taiwan, continue to test the relationship between the two nations. China has voiced its disapproval over former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Taiwan, a matter of serious concern to Beijing as it seeks to exert influence over the island. Despite these challenges, Cheng’s release is seen as a positive development in the ongoing efforts to improve China-Australia relations.