Aussie journalist in China arrested for supplying state secrets abroad

The Australian government on Monday said that Beijing has formally arrested Australian journalist Cheng Lei on suspicion of spying, after detaining her for six months.

SYDNEY • An Australian journalist who disappeared from Chinese state television's airwaves six months ago and was detained by the authorities in Beijing, has been formally arrested for "supplying state secrets overseas".

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said yesterday that China had revealed that it formally arrested Cheng Lei last Friday, after taking her into custody last August without explanation.

The mother of two stands accused of "illegally supplying state secrets overseas", Ms Payne said in a statement, without giving details.

Cheng had been a familiar face on CGTN's English-language channel, conducting interviews with noted chief executives from around the world. Born in China's Hunan province and now an Australian national, Cheng migrated to Australia as a child, before returning to China and joining the state broadcaster in 2012. China does not allow citizens to hold dual nationality.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrest and said Cheng's case is being processed. Its spokesman Wang Wenbin called on Australia to "respect China's judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China's handling of the case".

The announcement came as the family of Cheng, 49, pleaded with the authorities to grant the anchor access to her two school-age children.

Her detention came as relations between Australia and China cratered. The timing and lack of information about charges raised speculation that her detention was politically motivated, or tit-for-tat retaliation.

Beijing has reacted angrily to Australia's liberal use of foreign interference laws to block Chinese investment in sensitive sectors and to investigate Chinese influence on the country's public life. It was also infuriated by Australia's calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, responding with a slew of sanctions against Australian exports.

Cheng's detention came weeks after the Australian authorities raided the homes of Chinese state media journalists.

Two Australian journalists, Mr Bill Birtles and Mr Michael Smith, fled China shortly after being interrogated about Cheng.

Ms Payne said the Australian government has visited Cheng six times since she was detained - most recently on Jan 27 - and has "serious concerns" about her "welfare and conditions of detention".

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

Months after Cheng's detention, the Chinese authorities also detained Bloomberg News employee Haze Fan, also on allegations of endangering national security. The Foreign Ministry yesterday said Ms Fan's case is under investigation.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2021, with the headline 'Aussie journalist in China arrested for supplying state secrets abroad'. Subscribe