Australian citizen detained in China amid increasing tensions between Canberra and Beijing

An Australian citizen who works as a TV anchor for a Chinese state-controlled broadcaster has been detained as tensions between Canberra and Beijing escalate.

The Australian government was notified on 14 August that Cheng Lei, an anchor for a business show on the China Global Television Network, had been detained in Beijing.

In a statement released on Monday night, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, acknowledged the detention and said a consular visit had been conducted via video link.

“Australian officials had an initial consular visit with Ms Cheng at a detention facility via video link on 27 August and will continue to provide assistance and support to her and her family,” Payne said.

The foreign minister said “further comment will not be provided owing to the government’s privacy obligations”.

It is highly unusual for foreign journalists to be detained in China.

Cheng was born in China but later became an Australian citizen. In 2018, when she was an anchor for BizAsia on China Central Television, she appeared on ABC’s QandA program. She was previously China correspondent for CNBC for nine years.

She last tweeted on 12 August and her profile on CGTN’s website has been taken down. CGTN videos featuring Cheng have been removed from online platforms and social media pages.

Cheng has not been charged but is being held under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, according to an ABC report which states she can be held for up to six months without access to lawyers.

The ABC reports Cheng’s two young children are being cared for in Melbourne by family members and supporters are organising legal representation.

“We are aware of the current situation with regard to Cheng Lei’s status as advised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” her family said in a statement provided to the ABC. “In China, due process will be observed and we look forward to a satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.”

Geoff Raby, former ambassador to China and a friend of Cheng, said he was “very concerned”, and that her circle of friends had no idea where she had been for the past few weeks until Monday.

Raby told ABC’s Radio National it was “astounding” that someone of Cheng’s profile working for state media in China had been detained.

“Cheng Lei is a very skilful operator, she knows where the limits on public comment are… she understands how it works and she’s pragmatic and hardheaded, and was mainly doing business programs,” he said.

“It’s very hard to see where the sensitivity is, and where she may have overstepped any red lines around political sensitivities in China.”

The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom called for Cheng’s immediate release from her “unjustified detention” pending judicial proceedings, in line with international laws to which China is a signatory.

“In the absence of evidence, the only conclusion we can come to is that she is being used as a hostage in a wider diplomatic spat between Australia and China, or perhaps because of some critical comments she may have made,” said the Alliance’s spokesman, Peter Greste. “Either way, it is simply unacceptable.”

Amid deteriorating relations, Australia currently warns its citizens they may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention in mainland China.

“[Chinese] authorities have detained foreigners because they’re ‘endangering national security’,” the foreign affairs department states.

Confirmation of Cheng’s detention follows Monday’s announcement by Chinese authorities of a second trade investigation into Australian wine imports in as many weeks.

Simon Birmingham, the federal minister for trade, acknowledged there were a “number of issues” with the relationship between China and Australia.

“I’m disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not agreed to have those sorts of minister-to-minister discussions. We continue to support engagement at a range of different levels of cooperation, and stand ready and willing to do so,” he told ABC News Breakfast.

“But we continue to be committed to working as closely as we can, and particularly in the areas of mutual interest and advantage for our two nations.”

Canberra, meanwhile, is pursuing legislation to allow the federal government to stop state, territory and local governments, and universities, from entering agreements with foreign powers considered detrimental to Australia’s national interests.

On Tuesday morning the hawkish state media mouthpiece, the Global Times, ran several articles and op-eds, warning Australia over the move, and accused it of “unprovoked attacks in normal economic exchanges”, and of blindly following the US in anti-China rhetoric.

“In the past decade, China has been Australia’s largest trading partner, and this market is difficult to replace. If Australia views this close economic relationship as well as China-Australia collaboration in other sectors such as science as a burden rather than an opportunity, it will face far-reaching consequences it cannot bear.”

In the months since Australia pushed for an international inquiry into China’s handling of Covid-19, China has increased tariffs on Australian barley, citing dumping, and banned imports from some abattoirs over alleged compliance issues.

China has also told its international students and citizens not to travel to Australia because they could encounter racism.

After tensions initially escalated as a result of the coronavirus inquiry, the Australian government changed its position to declare Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea “invalid”, and condemned Beijing’s moves to curtail freedoms in Hong Kong.

Cheng is the latest high-profile Australian to be detained by Beijing. Her detention comes more than a year after former Chinese diplomat turned Australian academic Dr Yang Hengjun was arrested and charged with espionage.