Australian journalist held in China to “deliver state secrets”

An Australian journalist who worked as an anchor for Chinese state television has been formally arrested for “illegally delivering state secrets abroad”, six months after she was imprisoned in China without explanation, Canberra said on Monday.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Chinese authorities informed her that Cheng Lei was formally arrested on February 5, after disappearing from the public eye in August last year.

“Chinese authorities have announced that Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets abroad,” Payne said in a statement.

The imprisonment of Cheng, who conducted interviews with the international CEO of CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk program, came when Beijing-Canberra relations disappeared.

China became furious at Australia’s request for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and lashed out at its liberal use of foreign interference laws to block investment and investigate Chinese influence at its university.

Beijing has been accused of reprisals by imposing a series of trade sanctions on Australian products, including wine, beef, barley and coal.

Payne said Australian diplomats had visited Cheng six times since her arrest, most recently on January 27.

“The Australian Government has raised its serious concerns about Cheng’s detention on a regular basis at older levels, including her welfare and detention conditions,” she said.

“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural justice and humane treatment to be met, in line with international standards.”

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

Her prison sent shockwaves through China’s foreign journalistic community.

She has written a number of Facebook posts critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s stance on the coronavirus outbreak.

One post went well during Xi’s visit to Wuhan in March, Covid-19: zero: “The big story today, Dear Leaders’ visit, triggered headlines in the editorial office – waved to a large TV screen showing the coronavirus hospital in Wuhan is apparently the same a visit.”

Two other Australian journalists – Bill Birtles and Michael Smith – fled China in September last year after being questioned about Cheng.