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Explained: Who is Cheng Lei, the Australian journalist arrested by China?

Bilateral ties between Australia and China have worsened in the recent past, particularly after Canberra demanded an independent global inquiry into the origins and initial response of Covid-19.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 10, 2021 8:28:44 am
Cheng Lei, a Chinese-Australian news anchor based in Beijing, was detained in August last year after she was suspected of "criminal activities". (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who has been detained in China for months, was formally arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, Chinese authorities said on Monday. Cheng was a journalist with CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement, “The Australian government has raised its serious concerns about Ms. Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention”.

“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms,” Payne added.

Cheng, who was arrested on Friday, has been detained in China since August, and will now face an official criminal investigation.

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Why was Cheng Lei detained?

A business executive turned journalist, Cheng had been living in China for the past few years, and worked as a business anchor at CGTN. A single mother, Cheng was born in China and had moved to Australia at age 9. Many of her family members, including her two young children, live in Australia.

Last year in August, Cheng suddenly disappeared from Chinese television, and CGTN removed from its website information related to Cheng such as her profile, as per the BBC. Cheng could not be contacted by friends or relatives.

China then announced that Cheng had been held on national security grounds and placed under “residential surveillance” at an undisclosed location, although there were no formal charges, and Cheng did not get access to a lawyer.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Cheng has been locked in a cell without fresh air or natural light, and has been interrogated multiple times. Authorities had also tightened restrictions on her ability to write letters and exercise, the report said. Under Chinese laws, the most serious offences can be punished with a life sentence.

Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece, told news channel ABC she was unsure why her aunt had been detained and now arrested. “I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” Wen said. “We don’t know if she’s just been caught up in something that she herself didn’t realise.”

After months of detention, she has finally been “arrested” – a sign that her case is progressing. Under a bilateral consular agreement with China, Australian representatives have been able to visit Cheng once in a month.

Deteriorating Australia-China relations

Bilateral ties between Australia and China have worsened in the recent past, particularly after Canberra demanded an independent global inquiry into the origins and initial response of Covid-19.

As per the ABC report, Australian intelligence officers had raided the homes of four Chinese state media journalists in Sydney about six weeks before Cheng was detained. Around this time, Australia warned its nationals about the risk of arbitrary detention in China– which Beijing dismissed as disinformation.

After Cheng was detained on August 13, two more Australian journalists working in China were questioned and declared persons of interest. Both were visited by Chinese police after midnight and were asked to report for questioning by the Ministry of State Security, after which they sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions, and eventually fled back to Australia.

Australia has also criticised China of charging Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian spy novelist, with espionage.

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