Australian journalist Cheng Lei says life in a Chinese prison was 'like being buried alive'.

In August 2020, Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained by Chinese authorities, and later arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.

She was working as a reporter and news anchor for China's state-run English-language TV station CGTN when the the Chinese Government claimed she broke an embargo on a government document media release by a few minutes.

She spent the next three years detained - over 1000 days filled with overwhelm - desperate to make it home to Australia to see her partner and children.

Opening up about her time in prison this week, Lei said that it felt "like being buried alive".

Watch part of Cheng Lei's interview. Post continues below. 

Video via Sky News.

The first six months were the worst.

Lei was put in "residential surveillance at a designated location", which is a Chinese program that allows authorities to interrogate detainees in an undisclosed location without a lawyer for six months, all in an attempt to extract information. 

Human rights groups have tirelessly condemned the program, as the detainees are often held in solitary confinement and subjected to sleep deprivation. Lei says her first six months were spent entirely alone.


"It's to make you feel isolated, and bored and pained and desperate. The final month was just 12 hours a day of pure sitting and very little chance to get up and just pace around a very little room," she said in an interview with Sky News.

"Every dream was a nightmare because if it was a good dream, waking up was worse."

Writing about her ordeal, Lei said she was given 15 minutes of 'fresh air' a day - which meant a guard would open a window at the top of her cell while the curtains were still drawn. The lights were on 24 hours a day, and all she had around her was padded beige walls.

Every year, her bedding would be taken into the sun for two hours to air. A small joy was when it returned to her cell, it would still be warm. Lei said she would wrap herself in the doona and pretend she was being hugged by her family.

In August this year, the journalist wrote a love letter to Australia to mark three years since being detained. Her letter was read out on ABC's 7:30 by her partner of eight years, Nick Coyle. 

"G'day Aussies. This is a love letter to 25 million people and seven million square kilometres of land. Land abundant in nature, beauty and space. I miss the Australian people, the closing hours of food markets stalls, with butchers calling out end of day prices and Sunday flea markets, immigrant family-run takeaway shops. Memories of this kindness have come back to me now and restored me," she said.

"It is not the same in here. I haven't seen a tree in three years. I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year. Most of all, I miss my children."


Cheng Lei before being detained. Image: Twitter.

Coyle told 7:30pm that Lei desperately wanted to be home for her two kids, aged 12 and 14, noting: "Those are times she can't get back, you know. Her daughter needs a mum going through these sorts of times … teenage adolescent, you know, time of life when mum's guidance can be so valuable."


After six months, Lei was transferred to a separate prison, where she had a cellmate with whom she could speak Cantonese with. To pass the time, Lei translated poems in her head, had conversations with her partner, and made up a radio station called "coffin FM". 

"Because that's what it felt like. I was buried alive," she told Sky News.

She also tried to learn new languages, and was allowed to read books that her partner sent her. She ended up with over 200 books.

Then last week, the news Lei and her family had been awaiting for finally arrived - she was free.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong confirmed the news, noting that her return was not part of a deal struck with the Chinese Government. Rather, her release followed the completion of China's judicial process. 

Lei later discovered she had been sentenced to two years and 11 months in prison and a subsequent deportation, despite not being privvy to that information herself while in detention. 

China's national security body recently released a statement saying: "Cheng Lei was coaxed by personnel from an overseas agency, violated the confidentiality clause signed with the employing unit, and illegally provided the state secrets she mastered at work to the overseas agency through her mobile phone."

Lei's supporters have maintained her innoncence. Her trial was also held in secret, and no evidence against her has been publicly released or examined.


Senator Wong welcomed Lei when she arrived in Australia, saying: "All Australians will be relieved to hear that Ms Cheng Lei has returned to her family after more than three years apart. The government has consistently advocated for Ms Cheng since her detention in August 2020.  An honour to welcome her home to Australia today."

The first time Lei looked in the mirror after three years, she immediately saw the physical impact of what she had endured.


"I had all the white hairs, the dark [under] eyes, the wrinkles. I was looking really pale, and frail I felt."

The first people she saw upon her release were her kids, who ran towards her. 

"They've aged a lot in the past three years. And we all just screamed and wept. I just held onto them. My heart broke."

Upon arriving in Australia, her first meal was having Vietnamese food. It was followed the next day by a feast at the Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne, fit with Morton Bay Bugs, oysters, burek, hot chocolate and more. 

Of course, re-adjusting to life outside of prison will take time. It's something Kylie Moore Gilbert can attest to.

"My brain kept going 'don't celebrate yet, something could still happen'. It was quite overwhelming," the Australian academic previously told Mamamia.

For Lei, she feels similarly, adding: "Sometimes I feel like an invalid, like a newborn and very fragile. And other times I feel like I could fly and I want to embrace everything. Because of this whole ordeal, I keep expecting people to drop out of the sky and arrest me. Or something will happen to my children."

But having time with those she loves most brings comfort.

"I did the school run last week and it felt so good. This whole idea that I am now here for them. Family letters were like medication [while in prison]. Words really fail the amount of gratitude I feel."

Feature Image: AAP.

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