‘Thanks for the free rent’: Cheng Lei jokes about China detention in comedy debut

<span>Cheng Lei joked in her show in Melbourne that in her darkest hour ‘the lights were always on’ in her cell.</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Hodges/Australia's Department of Foreig/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Cheng Lei joked in her show in Melbourne that in her darkest hour ‘the lights were always on’ in her cell.Photograph: Sarah Hodges/Australia's Department of Foreig/AFP/Getty Images

Cheng Lei, the journalist who was detained in China for three years, has offered to “reciprocate the hospitality” when the country’s premier, Li Qiang, visits Australia later this week.

Making her comedy debut in a one-off show in Melbourne with Vicky Xu – a writer and well-known Chinese dissident – Cheng joked that the premier had “got the dates wrong” and would miss their performance.

She said if she had met him, she would have said: “Hello premier, thank you so much for the rent-free accommodation. Can I please reciprocate the hospitality. You look worried but I insist, don’t you want a bit of a digital detox weight-loss program?”

Related: ‘Like being buried alive’: Australian journalist Cheng Lei on life in a Chinese prison

Cheng said for much of her time in detention she was fed cabbage stew and dreamed of “shoplifting a whole tray of meat pies from a bakery”. Since her release in October, she said she’s enjoyed cheese toasties, pizzas, steaks and many “chippies”.

“I’ve put on seven kilos since coming out of detention. It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve been really happy about putting on weight,” Cheng said.

She said detention was “easy” compared to comedy but was keen to give it a go for several reasons.

“First of all, I have endorsement from China’s ministry of state security, because they think that I’m such a good performer that I’ve been embedded as a spy in China for 20 years,” Cheng said.

She said also joked that while she tells her friends she was “in a dark place” during her time in detention, the lights were always on in her cell.

“In the darkest hour of your life, the lights are always on. That’s the fucking irony,” Cheng said.

The show, at Club Voltaire in North Melbourne on Thursday night, took the form of an interview, in which the duo asked each other about their experiences drawing the ire of Beijing.

Several of their friends and supporters were in the crowd, including Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Australian-British academic who was detained by Iran on espionage charges for more than two years.

It was through Gilbert that Cheng and Xu met, just earlier this week. While it was Cheng’s debut, for Xu it was a return to performing after she “bombed” her last stand-up show at the same venue two years earlier.

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“I was in my darkest moment, I was literally screaming at the audience, and they did not know what to do with me,” Xu told Guardian Australia ahead of Thursday’s show.

“The audience was shocked. So I just thought I’d give it another go. Then I met Cheng Lei and she seemed really interested in comedy, and I said, ‘You should do comedy too.’ So it’s become a double act.”

At the time of the last performance, Xu had made headlines after co-authoring a report on forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province that was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The report led her to become the target of a widespread campaign of intimidation and online abuse by agents and supporters of Beijing. At events, she was routinely heckled.

During Thursday’s set, Xu spoke of how the Chinese government released a “four-part documentary” on her, which made false claims about her sex life and drug use.

“[They] accused me of doing a lot drugs and being in these massive orgies with 15 white men, which I’ve never done – like I would forget if I was in that situation,” she said.

Xu also spoke of her plan to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, to “give him a hug and heal him”.

“He’s really traumatised. His family was purged during the Cultural Revolution, his father was sent to jail. his half sister killed herself. Xi Jinping was bullied by his peers, he was jailed at the party school and one time he escaped, he went back home to steal food from his kitchen and his own mother reported him,” she said.

“He’s a psycho for good reason.”

Xu now lives in Taiwan and has taken up mixed martial arts and competes in local competitions. Cheng now works for Sky News Australia as news presenter and columnist.

On the event’s page on ticketing platform Eventbrite, Xu warned that there would be “at least one person from the Chinese consulate in attendance”. She suggested people with Chinese passports and those who travel regularly to China to “wear a mask or some other type of disguise”. About a dozen audience members followed her advice, wearing masks and sunglasses.

Li, the Chinese premier, will be in Australia from Saturday to Tuesday. It is the first visit by a Chinese premier since 2017, which the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has described as a step towards stabilising the often tense relationship.