Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for China’s state broadcaster, has been detained in China, escalating tensions between the two nations.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed in a statement on Monday, August 31, that Cheng, a business presenter for the state-linked China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained earlier this month.
“The Australian Government has been informed that an Australian citizen, Ms. Cheng Lei, has been detained in China,” Payne said.
Payne said that Australian officials were formally notified of Cheng’s detention on August 14.
“Australian officials had an initial consular visit with Ms. Cheng at a detention facility via video link on Thursday, August 27, and will continue to provide assistance and support to her and her family,” she added.
Australian officials have not provided an explanation for her detention.
CGTN is an international English-language news channel based in Beijing, owned by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). As of Tuesday, September 1, it appeared that Cheng’s author page on CGTN had been taken down.
Beijing has not yet commented on Cheng’s case.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Cheng’s two children are with her family in Melbourne, Australia. In a statement, they said that they were aware of Cheng’s situation and were being advised by the Australian government.
“We ask that you respect that process and understand there will be no further comment at this time," the statement said.
According to The ABC, Cheng is being held under "residential surveillance at a designated location," a measure that could allow authorities to hold her for up to six months without access to a lawyer, even without formal arrest.
According to a video series released by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Cheng studied commerce at the University of Queensland and previously worked as an accountant for Cadbury Schweppes and as an analyst for ExxonMobil.
On her decision to work as a news anchor for Chinese state media, Cheng said that she is a “very curious person.”
“China is one of those subjects that can be talked up or down any of a number of notches, depending on the person’s knowledge and experience,” she said.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Cheng had made posts on Facebook that were critical of the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, Australian journalist and former government employee Yang Hengjun was detained in China on accusations of espionage.
In July, Australian authorities updated advice for travelers to China, saying that Australians may face “arbitrary detention” in the mainland.
“Authorities have detained foreigners because they're 'endangering national security,'” the Australian government said in its updated travel advice.
China dismissed the warning as “ridiculous.”
Cheng’s detention comes at a time of deteriorating relations between Australia and China after Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. The countries have also recently sparred over trade, restrictions on foreign investment, and Chinese encroachment in Hong Kong.