In China, an Australian journalist has been formally arrested for recovering state secrets. Cheng Lei had been in custody for six months, but the background to her arrest was barely clear so far.
Born in China, 49-year-old Cheng moved to Australia as a child with her parents and studied at the University of Queensland. She has worked in Beijing in recent years for CGTN, the English-language branch of Chinese state television. In August, the presenter unexpectedly disappeared from the tube. China let go after some time that it had been placed under a kind of house arrest for reasons of ‘national security’. Suspects can be held in China for up to six months without formal charges at a secret location.
Australia has asked Beijing for clarification several times. Foreign Minister Marise Payne now says that she expects China to give her a fair trial and that Cheng, who has two young children residing in Australia, will receive decent treatment.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed the wish that Australia should not interfere in the case; it would be up to China to deal with the case. A spokesman emphasises that all of Cheng‘s rights will be respected.
Relations under high voltage
The woman’s family stated in a statement that it was convinced that Cheng did not harm China‘s interests, at least not intentionally. “We don’t know if she got into something she‘s not aware of at all.”
Relations between China and Australia have been under great tension since last April the Australian government called for an international investigation into the origin of the coronapandemic. China saw this as a political attack and subsequently took trade measures against Australia.
Beijing has recently arrested or expelled several journalists. Around the time Cheng disappeared from television, two other Australian journalists fled China. One of them, ABC journalist Bill Birtles, stated that the Chinese police had visited him with questions about Cheng. He was advised by Australia to leave the country as soon as possible.
In December, China captured Australia’s anger with a fake photo on Twitter of an Australian military man who apparently threatened to slit the throat of an Afghan child. “The Chinese government should be ashamed of the message,” said Prime Minister Morrison. The message was posted by a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Besides Cheng Lei, Haze Fan was arrested. This Chinese Bloomberg journalist is known to Lei and, according to the authorities, has put national security at risk. Fan disappeared in December. No new announcements have been made on her case.