Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who was serving as a presenter for CGTN: China Global Television Network is currently under detention of Chinese authorities on the suspicion of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security” She has been in the custody on Chinese security agencies since Aug 14, 2020. China has confirmed the cause of her arrest after the last two journalists working for Australian media in China flew Sydney following a 5-day diplomatic stand-off.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporations’ Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith touched down in Sydney on Tuesday. Chinese men questioned both men before allowing them to leave the country. ABC’s Birtles said they questioned them about presenter Cheng Lei. Relations between China and Australia have seen new dips in recent years. Canberra has accused Beijing of meddling in their matters in past but the ties were further strained after the former called for an international inquiry into the origins and Chinese state’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China on Monday announced a record 17 foreign journalists have ousted by the Chinese regime in the first half of 2020.
Cheng Lei, a high-profile busines journalist for CGTN holds Australian passport. In August she disappeared from the scene and lost contact with his family and friends. China subsequently disclosed the respected journalist was under house arrest in an unknown location.
No charges were placed on the Australian at the time. However, now the foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian – two hours after the release of her fellow journalists – has confirmed the lady has been arrested on national security grounds. He added that authorities had taken compulsory measures against her and an investigation against her is under way.
The spokesman shed no lights on the details about her crime though and it is not clear what criminal activity she was involved in. Many at the time of her arrest believed the deteriorating relations between the two countries could be a cause of her detention. Bill Birtles and Mike Smith flew out of China on Monday after being investigated by Chinese officials. Talking to BBC Birtles said, Australian diplomats advised him to immediately leave China on last Monday.
“They had received some sort of warning or advice, they never specified what,” said the journalist. Birtles then booked a flight and that was bound to leave Beijing last Thursday but the situation changed at Wednesday midnight when 6 Chinese police officers accompanied by a translator raided is apartment where a farewell was organized by his colleagues and friends. He confirmed the police did not arrest him but informed that he was approached as a part of national security investigation and that he couldn’t leave China until allowed. The ABC journalist then contacted Australian consular officials the next morning who moved him to the Australian embassy where he spent next 4 days.
Birtles was later interviewed by Chinese police in the presence of Graham Fletcher, Australia’s ambassador to China. The law enforcement questioned him about Cheng Lei. “I know her, but not particularly well, it didn’t’ seem like I would be the most logical person to interrogate if you wanted evidence about her case,” he said.
The journalist was also questioned about the sources he had to report on Hong Kong’s national security law and on Australia’s ties with China. “There was not any real rigorous effort to extract any evidence or anything that could really be used in any case,” Birtles said.
Police also visited Mike Smith in Shanghai who also contacted Australian consulate and gave answers to the questions asked by law enforcement officials in the presence of Australian consulate members.