Cheng Lei, an anchor with the state-owned CGTN since 2012, has been detained by Chinese authorities, leading to speculation that they may be using her as a political hostage.
The CGTN correspondent, well known within Beijing, is believed to have kept a record of Wuhan’s handling of the pandemic on her private Facebook page and was reportedly not shy about expressing her opinions on how the region handled the deadly virus.
After eight years with the network, Cheng’s profile – and very existence – on the CGTN site has been wiped clean.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne would not detail much about the case, but confirmed that “formal notification was received on 14 August 2020 from Chinese authorities of her detention.”
The unexplained arrest threatens to ratchet up tensions between China and Australia, already high following Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent probe into the origins of the coronavirus and his decision to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from rolling out its 5G network in the country.
“Cheng Lei has been in a very special position,” Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “She’s on the national government-owned broadcaster that plays a key role in government propaganda. So levels of sensitivity for anyone working there are higher than for any other institutional body in China.”
“It is a very powerful message that’s being sent,” Raby added, “There is a tit-for-tat downward spiral going on and it’s hard to see where the floor to this is.”
Under Chinese law, the correspondent could be held for months in a secret location without being charged, without being granted access to an attorney and without communication with her family.
While the description of where Cheng is being kept – a “residential surveillance at a designated location” – does not inspire alarm, BBC China correspondent Stephen McDonell tweeted, “China’s ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ probably worse than being in say a detention centre.”
McDonell further elaborated that “‘suspects’ can be held for months, interrogated at some secret location – waked at all hours for sleep deprivation treatment – with no access to a lawyer.”
Australian Senator Simon Birmingham told Nine Network television, “We are obviously engaging where we can with Ms. Cheng Lei,” he went on, “We will continue … to work as best we can in providing her and her family with assistance through what is no doubt a stressful and difficult time for them.”
Cheng has two children residing in Melbourne but has been working as a TV anchor in China for the past eight years until her recent arrest in mid-August.
Criticism on social media
Although she has appeared increasingly disenchanted with the government on her private social media page – mocking Xi Jinping as “dear leader” – Cheng remained impartial in her work, treading carefully so as not to violate the government’s guidelines.
In February and March, the correspondent published a series of Facebook posts critiquing the Wuhan party secretary’s recent press conference, saying, “Instead of officials hanging their heads in shame (imagine how many in Japan would have hung themselves by now), they are asking the locals to be ‘grateful.’”
She goes on, “In China, the belief ‘do as I say, not as I do’ runs deep in public office.”
Other journalists detained
In a report issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the nonpartisan think tank cited a “sharp escalation” in “coercive diplomacy” by China in the past two years.
When confirmation came of Cheng’s arrest, Ambassador Graham Fletcher was in a meeting with Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer who was also detained by the Chinese government in January of last year.
Yang, who once worked for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has faced more than 18 months of isolation, torture and interrogation from the Beijing authorities under allegations of espionage. Despite this, the 55-year-old insists “I am innocent and will fight to the end.”
Across hundreds of blog posts, Yang’s criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is palpable. The former Chinese government official and business owner condemned Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s treatment of its people.
If found guilty, Yang faces the death penalty.
Yang’s arrest came shortly after Australian Karm Gilespie was sentenced to death in China in June, seven years after his arrest.
The Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 47 reporters were detained in China in 2018.
Two Australian journalists – Bill Birtles from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) – were recently rushed out of China after seven Chinese state security officers reportedly visited their homes and interrogated the two about Cheng in the time following her arrest.
The exit of the China-based reporters means that, for the first time in four decades, Australia does not have a media representative based in mainland China.
Smith told AFR that he was grateful to be back in Australia. “The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” he said.
The reporters’ departure is no surprise, as correspondents from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post were also dismissed from the country earlier in the year.
These cases indicate growing concerns about the risk for foreign journalists in Beijing. Needless to say, Cheng and many others are clearly caught in the eye of the political typhoon.
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