Cheng Lei’s arrival in Melbourne is clearly a moment of celebration for the Chinese-Australian journalist and her family from whom she has been separated for more than three years.
But it would also appear to be a triumph for Australian diplomacy, as well as a signal of China’s serious desire to improve Australia-China relations. For some time, Cheng’s incarceration remained a sticking point for Canberra in a more reasonable relationship emerging between the two sides.
Although born in China, Cheng has been an Australian citizen for years and emigrated to Melbourne with her parents when she was 10 years old. As a journalist, she found fame while working on China’s English-language public news networks. In recent years, she landed a job as a host of the Global Affairs program on the China Global Television Network.
However, in August 2020, she was arrested and has since been detained largely without access to Australian consular services.
Mystery surrounds the reasons for Cheng’s arrest, but shortly after his disappearance, a government official was arrested. would have said it had “endangered China’s national security”.
The obvious explanation was probably more political: she could have been a pawn in megaphone diplomacy and the increasingly tense relations between the two parties following the arrival of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison. asked for explanations of China on the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. She was arrested months later.
In fact, Cheng had become a hostage in international relations, just as other foreign nationals living in China had been in the past.
In December 2018, for example, two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were arrested in response to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada. Shortly after Meng reached an agreement for his release, the Canadians were released.
There is no doubt that the Australian government put considerable effort into negotiating Cheng’s return to Australia. Clearly, Australian diplomats made the case to Chinese leaders that if they wanted better relations with Australia, Cheng’s release would be a good start.
Likewise, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been very respectful of what is necessary to re-establish a proper relationship with Chinese authorities. In announcing Cheng’s return to Melbourne, he not only expressed great satisfaction with the outcome, but also stressed that the legal proceedings in China had now concluded.
Why release Cheng now?
The Australian government has indicated that it is ready to interact with China again. This means cooperating where possible and deferring where necessary. This is clearly a more sophisticated approach than many other governments could employ with China, including the former Morrison government.
Perhaps more interesting is why Chinese leaders would release Cheng now. This appears to be a gesture of goodwill, with Albanese confirming he will accept an invitation to visit Beijing before the end of the year. But there may be other calculations behind this.
An obvious explanation lies in the mutual benefit of a more open relationship between the two complementary economies. Australia may be suffering from the trade barriers China has imposed on our exports, but those same restrictions add significant costs to segments of the Chinese economy, such as heavy industry and energy production.
Another possible reason for this publication is that it could be part of a charm offensive intended to soften the Australian government’s growing proximity to the United States.
David SG Goodman is director of the China Studies Center and professor. This article first appeared on The conversation.