Aussie journalist detained without charge is state TV anchor

BEIJING • The Australian journalist detained without charge in China for at least a fortnight is a high-profile anchor for CGTN, the country’s English-language state broadcaster.

Cheng Lei (picture) has been held since at least Aug 14 without charge and with no reason being given for her detention.

China is yet to comment on the issue, but the case is the latest to fray relations between the two countries, which have withered over trade, security concerns about Chinese tech and Canberra’s push for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus.

Cheng has not been seen in public since being held, although Australian diplomats in Beijing say they were able to speak to her on Aug 27.

She is under “residential surveillance” according to Australia’s ABC News, raising fears of a protracted detention.

“Our concerns for Ms Cheng are genuine and real,” Simon Birming- ham, Australian minister for trade, tourism and investment told the network yesterday as calls mounted for her to be freed.

Chinese authorities should “disclose their reasons for holding” her or “release her immediately”, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.

Earlier this year, Australia warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention if they travelled to China.

Such acts fit a pattern of “coercive diplomacy”, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), including threats and trade bans.

Cheng’s case “is not necessarily coercion but if it did turn out to be, would not be surprised”, ASPI’s Fergus Hanson told AFP.

China has amped up its rhetoric against Australia since Canberra called for probe into the Covid-19 outbreak.

A senior Beijing envoy last week equated the push for a global inquiry to Brutus’ betrayal of Julius Ceasar, registering the “indignation, anger and frustration” felt by China at Australia.

The detention of Cheng, who conducted interviews with international CEOs for CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk shows, has also sent shockwaves through China’s foreign journalist community.

Cheng’s bio page has been pulled from the website of CGTN, China’s outward-facing English language news channel.

She has two young children, both believed to currently be in Melbourne.

“She’s really warm, very bright… very generous,” a friend of Cheng’s told AFP, requesting anonymity.

According to her LinkedIn page, she worked as the China correspondent for CNBC for nine years, before joining CGTN in 2012.

While the cause of her detention remains a mystery, she has written a number of Facebook posts critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government’s approach to the Covid-19 outbreak.

One post poked fun of Xi’s visit to Wuhan in March, saying: “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.”

She also complained about China “doing things for show”.

Cheng also praised on Facebook a censored interview with Dr Ai Fen, who sounded an early alarm on the new virus in Wuhan, the epicentre of the new Covid-19 outbreak.

AFP attempted to contact Cheng through WeChat and did not get any response. — AFP