On August 14, Australian TV host Cheng Lei was detained in Beijing as relations between China and Australia continue to worsen. According to CNN, the Australian government received a “formal notification” of Cheng’s detention and has since been in contact with her over video chat. According to the BBC, she is being held under “residential surveillance” in an unknown location. Charges have not yet been filed, and the reason for her detention is unknown. Cheng is a Chinese-born Australian citizen and business news anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language branch of state-owned broadcaster CCTV, according to the Guardian. Her profile and interviews on the CGTN website have since been deleted. Her detention also comes after Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, the last two Australian media journalists working in China, returned to Sydney on September 8. According to the BBC, Cheng has since been suspected of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security,” although it is unclear what “criminal activity” she has allegedly committed.
Australian minister of foreign affairs, Marise Payne, told reporters, “The process within the Chinese system does not require the laying of charges at this point, but we’ll continue to seek information about that and how long can she be detained without having charges laid under the Chinese system.” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hua Chunying said, “China is a country under the rule of law, and we will act in accordance with the law.” The International Federation of Journalists explained that Cheng’s detention was “without cause or reason [and] is deeply concerning, particularly if it means she has no access to legal support or communication with her family in Australia. We urge for immediate clarification on the circumstances surrounding her detention and call for every effort to resolve the matter promptly to secure her release.”
Human rights observers around the world have warned that Cheng could be at risk of torture by Chinese authorities, according to the Guardian. The same article notes that Cheng was taken into “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), a type of detention that the United Nations has classified as a type of enforced disappearance. RSDL allows for government officials to circumvent ordinary law processes and hold subjects without cause, due process or access to a lawyer for up to six months. RSDLs cannot be detained in existing detention centers, so they are often held in special facilities with suicide-proofed rooms. Head of Human Rights Watch Australia, Elaine Pearson, warned that RSDL detainees are “at risk of ill-treatment and even torture.” Director of NGO Safeguard Defenders, Peter Dahlin, added that the average length of detention in RSDL is around 30 days, but higher profile targets like Cheng could be held for around 120 days. According to Dahlin, the United Nations classifies solitary confinement for more than two weeks to be torture.
Cheng’s arrest comes as relations between Australia and China have worsened over the past few years, according to the BBC. In 2018, Australia banned Chinese firm Huawei from tendering for its 5G network. In 2019, Australian journalist Yang Hengjun was detained and charged with espionage by the Chinese government. In April 2020, Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, a move that Beijing saw as targeting China unfairly. In May 2020, China imposed a combined 80.5% tariff on Australian barley while also sanctioning Australian beef and wine exports, according to the Australian government and the BBC.
While some experts are hesitant to argue that Cheng is being used as a pawn by China to retaliate against Australia, they do not deny that the timing of her arrest could play into China-Australia relations, according to the BBC. Numerous organizations have expressed concern for Cheng given the possibility of her being tortured. This comes at a time when China has come under fire for other human rights issues, including the Xinjiang and coronavirus crises, according to Human Rights Watch. The world will wait to see what happens to Cheng in the coming months.