An Australian journalist who worked as an anchor for Chinese state television has been formally arrested for “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”, six months after she was detained in China without explanation, Canberra said Monday.
Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne said Chinese authorities informed her that Cheng Lei was formally arrested on February 5, after disappearing from public view last August.
“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” Payne said in a statement.
The detention of Cheng, who conducted interviews with international CEOs for CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk shows, came as relations between Beijing and Canberra languish.
China was infuriated at Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and bristled at the country’s liberal use of foreign interference laws to block investments and investigate Chinese influence at its universities.
Beijing has been accused of retaliating by slapping a series of trade sanctions on Australian products, including wine, beef, barley and coal.
Payne said Australian diplomats had visited Cheng six times since she was detained, most recently on January 27.
“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,” she said.
“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”
Cheng was the second high-profile Australian citizen to be held in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.
Her detention sent shock waves through China’s foreign journalist community.
She has written a number of Facebook posts critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak.
One post poked fun at Xi’s visit in March to Wuhan, the Covid-19 ground zero: “The big story today, Dear Leader’s visit, triggered titters in the newsroom — waving to a big TV screen showing the coronavirus hospital in Wuhan apparently equals a visit.”
Two other Australian reporters — Bill Birtles and Michael Smith — fled China last September shortly after being interrogated about Cheng.