An Australian TV host at China’s state broadcaster has been detained in Beijing as tensions between the two countries rise.
The Australian government received a “formal notification” of Cheng Lei’s detention on August 14, according to a statement released by Marise Payne, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs. Consular officials spoke with her by video chat on August 27. A source with knowledge of the situation said Cheng was being held at a detention facility.
Payne told Sydney radio station 2GB that Cheng was being detained in China without charge and could be held “for months.”
“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,” she told the radio station.
In a statement, Cheng’s family said they were in “close consultation” with the Australian government.
“[We are] doing everything we can as a family to support Cheng Lei,” the statement said. “In China, due process will be observed and we look forward to a satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.”
Cheng was a business anchor on CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV, which has since scrubbed all reference to her from its website and social media.
According to a profile of her that has now been deleted, the Australian journalist joined the Beijing-based broadcaster in 2012, following a nine-year stint with the US financial news network CNBC. She was one of CGTN’s top anchors, helming the daily “Global Business” show, conducting high-profile interviews, as well as driving “content innovation” and taking part in special projects.
In her spare time, Cheng was active in the Australian community in Beijing, taking part in events at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and acting as an “alumni ambassador” for the country’s embassy.
Her final post on WeChat, the Chinese social networking app, showed her at the opening of a Shake Shack outlet in Beijing on August 12, the first restaurant opened in China by the US chain. Posing in a bright green dress, Cheng captioned the photos with the hashtag “make shakes not war.”
The reason for Cheng’s detention remains unclear. CGTN did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Asked for comment at a press briefing on Tuesday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “I have no specific information for you. China is a country under the rule of law, and we will act in accordance with the law.”
The relationship between Australia and China has frayed in recent months. After Australia called for a investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing targeted it over trade, suspending some imports of beef and slapping heavy tariffs on barley. It also said Monday it will investigate whether Australian wine exports had been unfairly subsidized.
Last week, Australia effectively blocked the sale of a dairy business to a Chinese company, claiming the acquisition “would be contrary to the national interest.”
China on Monday suspended barley imports from CBH Grain, one of the largest Australian cooperatives, to “prevent the import of pests.” According to a notice posted by China’s General Administration of Customs on WeChat, the move was needed to “protect our country’s agricultural production and ecological safety.”
— Steven Jiang, James Griffiths, Michelle Toh and Eric Cheung contributed reporting.