Australian Journalist for CGTN Detained in China

The Australian government recently announced that journalist Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen who worked for the official Chinese overseas broadcaster CGTN, has been detained. Elias Visontay and Helen Davidson report for The Guardian:

The Australian government was notified on 14 August that Cheng Lei, an anchor for a business show on the China Global Television Network, had been detained in Beijing.

In a statement released on Monday night, ’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, acknowledged the detention and said a consular visit had been conducted via video link.

“Australian officials had an initial consular visit with Ms Cheng at a detention facility via video link on 27 August and will continue to provide assistance and support to her and her family,” Payne said.

[…] It is highly unusual for foreign journalists to be detained in China. [Source]

More on her her detention under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) from Australia’s ABC News’ Bill Birtles:

Ms Cheng has not been charged but is being held under what is called “residential surveillance at a designated location”.

It is a form of detention in which investigators can imprison and question a suspect for up to six months while cutting them off from lawyers and the outside world — all before they have even been formally arrested.

‘We ask that you respect the process’

Ms Cheng’s supporters are now arranging legal representation for her. [Source]

The Chinese government has given no reason for Ms. Cheng’s detention. She has worked as an anchor and reporter for for eight years. Prior to that, she worked for CCTV in China and for CNBC Asia. On her Twitter bio, Ms. Cheng refers to herself as a “passionate orator of the #China story,” a phrase employed by Xi Jinping to describe the goal of state media operating overseas. CGTN has removed all references to her and her work from their website, according to the ABC report. From The New York Times’ Chris Buckley:

The Australian statement gave no details of any accusations against Ms. Cheng, and the Chinese government has not commented publicly on her case. But her detention could become another irritant in Australia’s relations with China, especially if she is charged with serious offenses.

Australia’s economy depends heavily on exports to China, with its vast appetite for iron ore and other resources; even so, the Australian government has become increasingly critical of Chinese foreign policy and political influence.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Chinese politics and foreign policy, said it was unclear whether Ms. Cheng’s nationality was a factor in her detention.

It was “not clear it is about her being an Aussie,” Mr. McGregor said. “Though that will surely become part of how her case is handled, on our side as well.” [Source]

RSDL is a form of administrative detention which allows authorities to detain suspects for up to six months without formal charges and often under abusive conditions. It is frequently used against human rights activists as well as foreigners detained in China, including Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both of whom were detained in December 2018 and have since been charged with espionage but not yet tried. In a recent blog post, legal scholar Jerome Cohen pointed out the government’s use of RSDL as a way to evade legal protections mandated by the Criminal Procedure Law:

Although Australian scholarship on comparative law and politics relating to China is impressive, no learned books, law review articles or op-eds can do as much to alert public opinion to criminal injustice in China as recent arrests of Australian citizens who were formerly PRC nationals. They highlight the regime’s resort to RSDL, which vitiates the ordinary protections prescribed in the PRC’s Criminal Procedure Law for up to six months by authorizing the incommunicado detention that has so often fostered torture and coerced confessions. Good luck to those who seek to organize legal assistance for Ms. Cheng Lei! [Source]

As the coronavirus swept China, Ms. Cheng posted regular updates to Facebook about her life under lockdown in Beijing, several of which were quite critical of the official response. From Victoria Craw of news.com.au:

On February 16, she wrote that both she and a friend who also worked in television had been “lobbying our bosses to let us go to Wuhan to report, and not succeeding” in reference to the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, they were helping doctors by sending medical supplies and raising money for them to have PPE.

“Similarly, many alumni groups are handling their own rescue missions. It is a damning vote of distrust for intermediaries,” she wrote.

She also said her children would be schooled online but “school grades seem a distant concern at the moment, if this episode teaches children anything, it should be the premium on health and honesty.” [Source]

A China-born Australian citizen, Cheng has lived in Beijing since 2001. Her detention comes amid deteriorating relations between the two countries. In July, the Australian government issued a travel warning to China, citing the risk of “arbitrary detention.” Writer , also a China-born Australian citizen, was detained while on a trip to China in January 2019 and, like Ms. Cheng, held under “residential surveillance at a designated location” before being formally charged with espionage.

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