Chinese authorities have formally arrested an Australian journalist who was working with China’s state broadcaster CGTN on the charge of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” The move is the latest of such in the increasing tensions between China and Australia. In a statement, Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, said that Cheng Lei, who has been detained for six months since 13 August 2020, was formally arrested on 5 February. “Chinese authorities have advised the Ms. Cheng was arrested on the suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” Payne further added, “the Australian Government has raised its serious concerns about Ms. Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including her welfare and conditions of detention.”
According to former Australian ambassador to Beijing, Geoff Raby, says “China’s definition of state secrets is very broad,” he adds, “acquittals are infrequent in such cases.” China’s criminal code says that supplying state secrets could lead to a prison sentence of five to ten years. Australian Embassy officials have been able to successfully visit Cheng six times since being detained through a bilateral consular agreement with China. The most recent visit was on 27 January 2021. The journalist, Cheng Lei, was an anchor on China Global Television News, an international extension of China’s state-owned English-language broadcaster CCTV.
According to her profile, which has since been deleted, the Australian journalist began employment for the Beijing-based broadcaster in 2012 after working nine years with CNBC’s U.S. financial news network. Under CGTN, Cheng served as a top anchor and had conducted high-profile interviews and innovation projects. Cheng was also proactive within the Australian community in Beijing, attending embassy events and acting as an alumni ambassador for Australia’s embassy.
Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, confirmed Cheng’s arrest in a news briefing in Beijing and pressed Australia to “stop interfering.” Australia’s options and overall capability to secure Cheng’s release via diplomacy appear to be severely limited for now.
Cheng’s detention and arrest on a politically charged accusation as drastic as a national security crime comes at a time when Beijing and Canberra have been deadlocked in a series of disputes that have deteriorated relations. Relations between the two countries are at the lowest point they have been in decades. In recent years, Canberra had aimed to deter the Chinese government’s influence on Australian soil and blocked China tech company Huawei from building Australia’s 5G network. Following the country’s calling for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic’s origins, China was furious and fixated on the country over trade, blocking Australian company acquisitions and inputting tariffs on products. While the Chinese government has not explicitly stated its actions are political retaliation, most in Australia are convinced of such intent.
In the days following Cheng’s detention became public, two Australian journalists working in China fled the country, fearing detention. Bill Birtles, Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent with the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were questioned by Chinese state security officers as “persons of interest in an investigation” regarding Cheng. Both correspondents found protection from consular officials and were able to flee after a five-day diplomatic standoff. Australia’s media has now been left without any journalists in China for the first time in 50 years.
In an exclusive report from ABC Australia, Birtles quoted Cheng’s family in saying that they were unaware of any reason she could have been detained and arrested for. However, last year, during the peak of the coronavirus in China, Cheng had criticized Chinese government officials’ handling of the pandemic on her Facebook page. Cheng specifically mocked one Communist Party cadre that said the people should be grateful: “In China, the belief ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ runs deep in public office. ‘Serve the people,’ goes the slogans. Reality is the opposite.”
While the chances of securing Cheng Lei’s release may appear dauntingly slim, the only viable option available for the time being would be for the Australian government to attempt to continue its remaining channels of diplomacy and negotiation. However, as relations between China and Australia continue to deteriorate, these diplomatic channels will require ever more precaution.