When China’s prominent ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, was asked about Cheng Lei earlier this week, he did not even hint that one of the most painful and bitter disputes in the bilateral relationship was coming to be resolved.
Xiao spent a lot of time answering questions from Australian diplomats, businessmen and journalists about why the mother of two and former state television presenter was detained for years on the base accusations that are almost universally considered – at least in Canberra – to be completely fabricated. .
So when answering another question about Cheng Lei and detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun at the Asia Society on Wednesday morning, the ambassador repeated some fairly familiar talking points.
“What I can share with you is that both sides have engaged very closely and worked very hard to try to be helpful within the laws and rules, trying to find a solution to these cases as quickly as possible,” he said. said.
Xiao did not reveal what he surely must have known at that time, which was that as he spoke, Cheng Lei had already left China and was heading to Melbourne for an emotional reunion with his children.
The resolution of his case will be a source of immense joy for Cheng Lei and his loved ones.
It is also a deep relief to the federal government, which spent a lot of time and effort repatriating her.
The exact circumstances of his release remain unclear and we may never know exactly how Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Australian diplomats managed to secure his freedom.
China wants to apply a semblance of legitimacy
Beijing has never given a detailed account of what Cheng Lei allegedly did to justify his imprisonment, and obtaining clarification from China’s notoriously opaque legal system has been almost impossible.
China’s Ministry of State Security said Wednesday that Cheng Lei was “persuaded” by “foreign agency personnel” and pleaded guilty to providing them with “state secrets” via her mobile phone – perhaps the most detailed public statement yet on the accusations. against her.
The punishment for this was, apparently, a sentence of two years and 11 months – which very conveniently bridges the time between his imprisonment and today, at a time when China is keen to build its goodwill by anticipation of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision. visit to Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government remains keen to give this procedure the appearance of legal legitimacy.
Xiao said his case concerns “Chinese laws and regulations and is being handled in accordance with Chinese laws”, suggesting authorities were powerless to intervene.
But as Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute has pointed out, China’s courts are not independent entities and are inseparable from the ruling party.
Which, in turn, underlines what Australian politicians and officials must suspect but (quite understandably) do not wish to express: that Cheng Lei has been used as a political pawn in a wider strategic and diplomatic dance and that Beijing has decided to release her only now. because they thought it was useful to do so.
Seen in this light, it’s hard not to see Cheng Lei’s apparent guilty plea – and the Australian government’s silent acquiescence – as the price of his freedom, paid to give the Chinese government’s account of events a slim veneer of plausibility.
Australian leaders are of course not going to reveal this publicly.
This would only invite predictable and furious denial from Beijing.
A government source also pointed out that it would make it even more difficult for authorities to secure the release of other Australians – like Yang Hengjun – caught in the same quagmire in China.
Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister repeatedly used the same rather fitting and deliberate phrase when asked about Cheng Lei’s release: that “the legal proceedings had been completed in China.” .
Xiao outlines China’s ‘three expectations’
Beyond what McGregor describes as a pre-visit “sweetener” for Mr Albanese, why did Beijing choose this moment to let her go, and what could it mean?
It is impossible to deny the symbolic weight of Cheng Lei’s release, even as her defenders remind journalists and politicians that China deserves no credit for finally freeing a woman it treated with such contempt.
It now seems clear that China actually intends to resume a less hostile relationship with Australia, reestablishing something much closer to normal diplomatic relations.
China ended its policy of official silence towards Australia 17 months ago when Labor came to power, and high-level political dialogue and regular diplomatic exchanges are now beginning to return to a pace close to that before COVID-19.
Many (but not all) trade barriers erected when bilateral relations were at their lowest, from coal to timber to barley, have now been lifted, allowing more Australian goods to flow back into China.
There is even hope in Canberra that the Chinese authorities could soon end the crippling customs duties on Australian wine.
Of course, Beijing remains unhappy with Australia’s efforts to develop nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS deal and continues to complain forcefully whenever it is excluded from sensitive sectors in Australia, such as critical minerals.
But he no longer speaks about many of the elements included in the famous “14 grievances” he gave to an Australian journalist in 2020.
At the Asia Society event on Wednesday, Xiao had a gentler, less demanding formulation: the “three expectations.”
First, the need for “mutual understanding” without suspicion. Second, the expansion of “practical cooperation”. Third, the “appropriate” management of differences.
All these developments are welcome, even if Australian officials and politicians remain somewhere between realistic and jaundiced when asked how far this rapprochement can go in current times.
And Cheng Lei’s release, heartwarming as it is, is also a powerful reminder of the depth of differences that still exist between China and Australia.
As Xiao says, there may well be space for the two countries to explore new grounds, building a deeper clean energy relationship and allowing the natural complementarity of the two economies to open up new spaces for cooperation .
And despite the federal government’s determined efforts to diversify, China appears destined to remain Australia’s largest trading partner for years to come.
But the Chinese government’s two-year campaign of economic coercion, furious denunciation, diplomatic silence and mysterious arrests has deeply impressed decision-makers in Canberra, and not just those already inclined to suspicion or skepticism. respect for the rising giant.
Much like Cheng Lei’s three years behind bars, this situation left a painful legacy that cannot be completely erased.