SYDNEY - Australian officials say they have spoken with a high-profile Australian television news anchor who has been detained in China.
Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen, has worked for the Chinese government's English news service, CGTN. Cheng’s detention in Bejing is seen as another blow to already fragile Australia-China relations.
Cheng Lei is being held under what is known in China as “residential surveillance at a designated location.” The TV presenter has not been charged but she can be detained for up to six months without access to a lawyer.
Cheng has worked as an on-air anchor and reporter for the China Global Television Network, or CGTN, for the past eight years. Videos featuring the high-profile journalist have been removed from the channel’s online platforms and social media pages.
Australia was officially notified of her arrest in the middle of August.
A statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne in Canberra said diplomats were allowed to speak to her last week via video link.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says the government will do what it can to help her.
“I feel for her family very much at this point in time, and it is why we will do what we can to assist her as we would and have any Australian in these sorts of circumstances. There is a long history of different consular cases and points of difficulty that we have seen over the years. So, we should not see this as a first, or a one-off. It is concerning for her family and we will provide the assistance that we can,” Birmingham said.
It is highly unusual for foreign journalists to be detained in China. Friends of Cheng Lei have told Australian media that she was a “very skillful operator” who knew “where the limits on public comment” were in China’s highly monitored media. It is unclear what she might have done to upset Chinese authorities, or break any laws.
Cheng was born in China and is an Australian citizen. In a statement, family members in Melbourne said they were optimistic that “in China, due process will be observed and we look forward to a satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.”
She is the second Australian to be detained in Beijing. Writer Yang Hengjun is being investigated over alleged espionage and has been held since early 2019.
In July, Canberra updated its information for Australians traveling to China, warning they could be at risk of arbitrary detention.
Diplomatic tensions between Canberra and Beijing have also been enflamed by disputes over trade, as well as allegations of Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic politics and cyber espionage.