Australian journalist arrested in China for ‘supplying state secrets’

SYDNEY (AFP) – An Australian journalist who disappeared from Chinese state television’s airwaves six months ago and was detained by Beijing authorities has been formally arrested for “supplying state secrets overseas”.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said yesterday that China had revealed it formally arrested Cheng Lei on February 5, after taking her into custody last August without explanation.

The mother-of-two stands accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”, Payne said in a statement, without providing details.

Cheng had been a familiar face on CGTN’s English-language channel, conducting interviews with noted CEOs from around the world.

Born in Hunan province, she emigrated to Australia as a child, before returning to China and joining the state broadcaster in 2012.

Yesterday, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the accusation Cheng faces, and said her case “is being further processed”.

Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei attends a public event in Beijing. PHOTO: AP

“We hope that Australia will respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s handling of the case… in any way,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin.

She faces severe punishment if found to have broken China’s national security laws.

Her niece Louisa Wen told Australian broadcaster ABC that the family did not “understand anything about the case”.

She added that it had been “quite tough on the kids wondering what’s going on”.

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.

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.

China 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.