Australian journalist Cheng Lei says feels ‘fragile’ after China detention

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian journalist Cheng Lei, freed last week after three years detained in Beijing, said in her first interview with news channel Sky News Australia that she alternated between feeling “very fragile” like a newborn and feeling like she could fly.

Cheng returned home last Wednesday and was reunited with her children aged 12 and 14 in Melbourne, after being released from a Chinese jail. She was met by Foreign Minister Penny Wong at Melbourne’s airport and welcomed back to Australia in a telephone call from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who had raised her case with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

“Sometimes I feel like an invalid, like a newborn and very fragile and other times I feel like I could fly,” she said in the interview with the broadcaster on Tuesday.

Cheng wept as she recalled her two children running towards her at the airport last Wednesday and her heartbreak at seeing her mother had aged and lost weight after shouldering the burden of raising them in her absence for three years.

“We just all screamed,” she said.

Cheng, 48, was a business television anchor for Chinese state television when she was detained in August 2020 for allegedly sharing state secrets with another country. She went on trial in a closed Beijing court in 2022, with details of her sentence not released until last week.

Australia had repeatedly raised concerns about her detention, which came as China widened blocks on Australian exports amid a diplomatic dispute that is gradually easing.

Cheng said she couldn’t divulge details about her case. She replied “yes” when the Sky interviewer said Cheng had shared a government briefing document before she went on-air and broke an embargo by a few minutes.

“In China that is a big sin, you have hurt the motherland and the state’s authority has been eroded because of you. What seems innocuous to us here … are not in China,” Cheng said.

“I am given to understand the ambit of state security is widening,” she added.

China’s State Security Ministry said last week Cheng had served a prison sentence after breaching a confidentiality agreement with her state media employer by providing state secrets to a foreign organisation through her mobile phone.

Recalling how she was first detained in August 2020, Cheng said someone senior from her work called her in, and she arrived to find 20 people there. “Someone stands up, shows his badge and says ‘you’re wanted’,” she recalled. She was escorted to her apartment where it was searched all day.

In her first six months of detention she was isolated, and attempted to block negative thoughts by translating poems in her head. “Every dream was a nightmare because if it was a good dream, waking up was worse,” she said.

She later moved to a prison with cell mates, where the light was never turned off. Returning to Australia on the plane was the first time she had experienced darkness in three years, she said.

“Because of this whole ordeal I keep expecting people to drop out of the sky and arrest me,” she said, when asked how she was adjusting to life in Australia.

Cheng thanked the Australian government and public, and said Wong, who had reassured her family, had felt like “a friend who was trying to help me”.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)