Freed Australian reporter says Chinese officials tried to ‘block’ her view at Li Qiang event

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was detained by China for three years, has accused Chinese officials of scuttling her coverage of premier Li Qiang’s visit at a press conference in Canberra.

Ms Cheng, who now works as a journalist for Sky News Australia, and said Chinese officials obstructed her from being filmed by cameras when she arrived at the venue to cover Mr Li’s visit to the Australian parliament.

“They went to great lengths to block me from the cameras and to flank me,” Ms Cheng told Sky News Australia.

“And I’m guessing that’s to prevent me from saying something or doing something that they think would be a bad look. But that itself is a bad look,” she said.

Ms Cheng, who previously worked with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s international department, was detained by China on charges of spying since August 2020. She was released to Australian authorities in October 2023.

She was sentenced shortly after being convicted in a closed-court trial last year on national security charges.

The video footage from the press conference also seemed to confirm the incident.

According to the Guardian, Ms Cheng was seated with her fellow Australian journalists in the seats allotted for the media. As the agreements were being signed, a Chinese embassy official stood in front of Ms Cheng, according to the report.

Australian officials repeatedly asked the Chinese official to move but after the requests were rebuffed, an Australian official was heard as saying: “You’re standing in front of my Australian colleague – you must move.”

A fellow Australian journalist then offered to swap seats with Ms Cheng, resulting in her moving two seats to the right. When another embassy official appeared to move around to try to get close to Ms Cheng, Australian officials blocked the path, according to the Guardian.

Ms Cheng’s release from Chinese detention was welcomed by Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese last year, who said he was “pleased to confirm that Australian citizen Ms Cheng Lei has arrived safely home in Australia and has been reunited with her family”.

When he was asked on Monday about the latest incident, Mr Albanese said he “wasn’t aware” there had been an issue but added that “it’s important people be allowed to participate fully”.

“That’s what should happen in this building and anywhere else”.

Ms Cheng was detained at a time when the bilateral ties between Australia and China were severely strained over human rights, trade disputes, and responses to the Covid pandemic.

But relations between the countries have improved since Mr Albanese’s centre-left Labour Party was elected after nine years of conservative rule. Beijing has lifted several official and unofficial trade barriers on Australian exports.

Earlier in a letter to the Australian public on the three-year anniversary of her detention, she shared the detention conditions including being able to stand in the sunlight for just 10 hours a year.

“I relive every bushwalk, river, lake, beach with swims and picnics and psychedelic sunsets, sky that is lit up with stars, and the silent and secret symphony of the bush,” Ms Cheng said in the letter shared by her partner, Nick Coyle.

She hasn’t seen a tree since she was detained, she wrote, and she misses the sun.

“In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year.”

Mr Albanese and Mr Li met on Monday in the first visit to the country by a Chinese premier in seven years, with trade ties, regional security and a jailed Australian writer on the host’s agenda.

The visit by Mr Li, China’s top-ranked official after president Xi Jinping, marks a stabilisation in relations between the US security ally and the world’s second-biggest economy, after a frosty period of Beijing blocking $20bn in Australian exports and friction over defence encounters.

“We welcome the continued stabilisation and development of our bilateral relations. This dialogue has allowed us to build a deeper awareness of our respective interests,” Mr Albanese said in opening remarks.

Australia and China had complementary economies and shared interests in addressing climate change, he said.

“We also have our differences, that’s why candid dialogue is so important. For Australia, we consistently advocate the importance of a region and world that is peaceful, stable and prosperous, where countries respect sovereignty and abide by international laws,” he said.

After the meeting, Mr Li told reporters the leaders held a “candid, in-depth and fruitful meeting and reached a lot of consensus”.

The two countries would expand cooperation in energy and mining, and China would include Australia in its visa waiver programme, he added.

Protesters and supporters gathered on Monday morning on the lawn outside parliament house in Canberra, where there was a heavy police presence, as a ceremonial welcome was held for Li.

Barricades separated Tibetan, Uyghur, Hong Kong and Falun Gong protesters from a large contingent of pro-China supporters.

Additional reporting by agencies