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China arrests Australian journalist in spying case

Cheng Lei's family say she has been interrogated repeatedly and her health is deteriorating

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

Published: February 09, 2021 04:13 AM GMT

Updated: February 09, 2021 04:41 AM GMT

China arrests Australian journalist in spying case

Cheng Lei has been arrested amid strained China-Australia ties. (Photo: YouTube)

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked for CGTN, the Chinese state television international channel, has been formally arrested in China after six months of detention over accusations she supplied state secrets overseas.

“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms. Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Feb. 8.

In recent years Cheng, a China-born Australian citizen, had worked in Beijing while most of her family, including her two young children, lived in Australia. She disappeared last August from television screens and could not be contacted by friends or relatives.

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CGTN then cleared its websites of Cheng's profile page and her work as an anchor on a business program. She was formally arrested on Feb. 5.

“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms,” Payne said. "Our thoughts are with Ms. Cheng and her family during this difficult period.”

Australia’s ties with Beijing have been strained recently amid growing resentment over Chinese encroachment and interference in Australian society and politics. 

In September, two Australian journalists were smuggled out of China through diplomatic channels after being told they were part of a “national security investigation” and they could not leave the country.

Payne said Australian embassy officials had visited Cheng six times since her detention, most recently on Jan. 27, and would maintain close contact with Chinese authorities about her case. 

Cheng’s family have said they had no idea why she was detained but added she had been interrogated on several occasions and was being kept in a cell. Her health had also deteriorated.

“I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” Louisa Wen, her niece, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

“We don't know if she's just been caught up in something that she herself didn't realize,” she said. 

Another Australian, China-born writer Yang Hengjun, has been detained in China for more than two years and has denied allegations of espionage.

The Australian government says Yang had endured unacceptable treatment while in detention. This included being shackled in his cell and enduring “hundreds of interrogations.”

Journalists have been caught up in a tit-for-tat diplomatic row between China and Australia. 

The home of Chinese journalist Yang Jingzhong, who worked as Sydney bureau chief for the state news agency Xinhua, was raided by Australian authorities last June. A seven-hour search followed and a number of electronic devices and documents were confiscated.

The homes of three other journalists were also raided as part of a broader investigation into an alleged plot to influence an Australian state politician.

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