China Releases Australian Journalist Cheng Lei

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who was held in Beijing for more than three years, has returned to Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Wednesday.

Mr. Albanese said Ms. Cheng had been reunited with her two young children in Melbourne.

“Her return brings an end to a very difficult few years for Cheng and her family,” Mr. Albanese said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Ms. Cheng, who worked for China’s global television network, was detained in Beijing in August 2020 and formally arrested later on suspicion of sharing national secrets. A familiar face as a business news host for China Global Television News, Ms. Cheng, 48, had long presented herself as a bridge between China and Australia, according to friends.

On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry said Ms. Cheng had been sentenced to two years and 11 months in prison. “After serving her sentence, Cheng Lei was deported by the Beijing State Security Bureau in accordance with the law,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. Until now China had said little about the case.

The secrecy around the investigation prompted speculation that Ms. Cheng was targeted because relations between China and Australia had reached a low point. Her release this week is a sign of less animosity between the two countries.

“Gradually, the freeze has been thawing, and I think the resolution of this case is a big part of that,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Ms. Cheng’s arrest came amid several high-profile detentions of foreigners in China, prompting questions about whether the Chinese government was increasingly using “hostage diplomacy.”

Two months before Ms. Cheng was detained, the Chinese authorities indicted two Canadians who had been held since 2018 — the former diplomat Michael Kovrig and a businessman, Michael Spavor — on espionage charges that appeared to be tied to the arrest of a Chinese technology executive in Canada on a U.S. warrant. The two men were released in 2021when Canada and the United States allowed the executive, Meng Wanzhou of Huawei Technologies, to return to China.

After years of downward spiral, ties between China and Australia have improved significantly since early last year, when Mr. Albanese and his Labor Party won an election. Mr. Albanese has since tried to improve the relationship and is expected to meet with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, later this year for the second time since he became prime minister.

“China is willing to work with Australia to promote the continuous improvement and development of bilateral relations,” said Mr. Wang, the foreign ministry spokesman.

Another Australian, the writer Yang Hengjun, is still in jail in China. He was arrested in 2019 and stood trial in May 2021, but a verdict in his case has been repeatedly delayed.

“Both Ms. Cheng and Mr. Yang were detained when relations were in a free fall,” said Mr. McGregor.

Earlier this year from her prison cell, Ms. Cheng dictated a letter to an Australian consular official describing the difficult conditions she was experiencing.

“In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window, but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year,” Ms. Cheng said in the letter. She also said that she missed Australia, where she grew up, and its people.

“Most of all,” she said, “I miss my children.”

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