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China detained Australian TV anchor over 'national security'

September 8, 2020

China's Foreign Ministry has accused Cheng Lei of carrying out "criminal activities," in the first official comments on the case since the reporter's arrest. Beijing has said the journalist's rights are "guaranteed."

Cheng Lei
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N.H. Guan

A high-profile Australian TV anchor working for Chinese state media was arrested on "national security" grounds, China's government announced on Tuesday.

Authorities detained Cheng Lei, a business journalist for the English-language CGTN channel, on August 14.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said authorities suspected Cheng "of criminal activity endangering China's national security."

"Compulsory measures have been taken, and an investigation is underway by the relevant authority," he said. "This case is being handled according to the law, and Cheng's legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed."

It is the first time the Chinese government has commented on Cheng's detention, which has strained relations with Australia.

Read more: Journalists under threat: September's 10 most urgent cases

Australian journalists flee China

Two Australian correspondents fled China on Monday night after having sought refuge in Australia diplomatic missions across the country.

Bill Birtles, who works for public broadcaster ABC, and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review said they feared arrest by the Chinese authorities.

Australian journalists flee China fearing arrest

Diplomats eventually brokered a deal that said they could leave the country in exchange for agreeing to be interviewed by police.

Both said security officials questioned them about Cheng's case in the presence of Australia's ambassador to China.

"The deal basically was police will interview me and then the Chinese government will lift its exit ban. But having gone through that interview, I'm not really convinced that police thought that I or the other journalists would have any particularly useful information," Birtles told DW.

"It seems to me this is much more related to the broader problems in the China-Australia relationship and that perhaps we were just pawns in a much bigger situation that's beyond our control."

Birtles told DW that he believed the whole incident was part of a broader crackdown by Beijing against Australian media in China, because police "weren't particularly rigorous in trying to extract answers around [the Cheng Lei] case."

"If anything, this looked like a concerted effort to target the Australian media in Beijing. And I'd say that is related more to the Australia-China relationship," Birtles added.

Strained relations

China has repeatedly accused Australia of interfering in its internal affairs with its criticism of the country's human rights record and Beijing's crackdown on foreign media outlets.

Ties between the two nations soured further in April when Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of coronavirus.

Beijing introduced several new tariffs on multiple Australian products a month later.

China is Australia's top trading partner. Last year, trade between the two countries was worth $170 billion (€143 billion), according to Australian government statistics.

jf/rt (AFP, Reuters)