Chinese investigators have formally arrested an Australian journalist who worked for China’s state television on suspicion of sharing national secrets, the Australian foreign minister said on Monday, a move likely to increase tensions between the two countries.
The journalist, Cheng Lei, worked as an anchor for a business show on China Global Television News, or CGTN, when she was detained in August. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs later disclosed that Ms. Cheng had been accused of a national security crime, but gave no further details.
“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a brief statement on Monday. She gave no other details.
“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms,” Ms. Payne added.
Ms. Cheng, 45, was born in Hunan Province in southern China and migrated to Australia with her parents while still a child. Her arrest on such a politically charged accusation comes while the two countries have been at loggerheads in a series of disputes that have driven relations to their lowest point in decades.
“I don’t think it is about the bilateral relationship, though that doesn’t help her cause,” Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to Beijing who has written about the deterioration of relations, said of Ms. Cheng’s arrest. China’s definition of state secrets was very broad, he said, adding, “Acquittals are infrequent in such cases.”
Australia’s ability to secure Ms. Cheng’s release through diplomacy appears dauntingly limited.
In recent years, Canberra has sought to deter Beijing from influence-building activities on Australian soil, including among the country’s large population of recent migrants from China. The Australian government has also angered China by blocking the potential participation of the Chinese tech giant Huawei in building Australia’s 5G network.
Last year, Australia led calls for an international investigation into the origins and course of the coronavirus pandemic, infuriating China, which has been sensitive about questions of its culpability in the origin of the outbreak.
In turn, China has restricted imports of Australian goods, including wine, coal and barley. The Chinese government has not described those actions as political retaliation, but few in Australia are convinced otherwise.
Ms. Cheng’s 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son are being cared for by her mother in Melbourne, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Monday.
“I feel like the children don’t fully understand the situation, so it’s probably quite tough on the kids, wondering what’s going on,” Louisa Wen, a niece of Ms. Cheng’s, told the broadcaster.
“We don’t understand anything about the case,” Ms. Wen said. “But we do know she’s been in detention for five and a half months and her conditions are worsening.”
Before Ms. Cheng’s case, another Australian of Chinese heritage, Yang Hengjun, faced spying charges in China. Mr. Yang, a writer and businessman also known as Yang Jun, has been held in China since early 2019, and last year was indicted on espionage charges.
Two Canadians — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman — are also awaiting trial in China on spying charges. Their supporters have said that Beijing is using them as pawns to coerce Canada to refuse the extradition of a Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, to the United States, where she faces fraud charges.
Ms. Cheng’s case became bound up with those of two Australian journalists who abruptly left China in September, fearing detention. After a diplomatic standoff, the journalists — Michael Smith, the China correspondent for The Australian Financial Review; and Bill Birtles, a correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation — were questioned by Chinese state security officers, including about Ms. Cheng.
Haze Fan, a Chinese staff member of Bloomberg News in Beijing, was detained in the Chinese capital in December under suspicion of “criminal activities that jeopardize national security,” according to Bloomberg
Ms. Cheng first worked in business in Australia and China. As a CGTN journalist, she appeared eager to promote better relations between the two countries, and had highlighted China’s economic success story.
“Passionate orator of the China story,” the introduction on her Twitter account says.
Last year, however, when the coronavirus pandemic was at its worst in China, Ms. Cheng made critical comments on her Facebook page about Chinese government officials. She mocked one Communist Party cadre who said citizens should be grateful.
“Even in China, where the pool of material for satire never runs low, this is too rich,” she wrote. “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.”